Monday, April 28, 2014

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Holocaust during World War II was one of the worst chapters in the history of mankind. There were atrocities of the most heinous sort. Scores of Jewish families were wiped out by the Nazis, and tortured most brutally in the process. The genocide was so ruthless, it beggars the imagination to even think that humans were capable of such things. It is an event that still continues to haunt the entire world. Some Jews managed to survive this nightmare. Well, technically at least; for they did not die at the hands of the Nazis. But the damage done to their spirits was irrecoverable. The incident scarred them for life and they ceased to be the human beings they once were.

Sidney Lumet's "The Pawnbroker" (1964) tells the story of one such survivor. Sol Nazerman is a middle-aged, broken man who came back alive from the terrible tragedy that shamed the world. He now runs a small pawn shop in East Harlem. He is practically a walking dead, though. A joyless, desensitized individual, a misanthrope who is only living for the basics of food and shelter. Humanity and God mean nothing to him now. A hardened cynic, he rejects any friendship or camaraderie that is attempted by those around him. Although they all fondly call him "Uncle", he rarely ever looks his patrons in the eye or engages in small talk. He has regular visitors including one particular rambler who comes looking for someone to talk to but is always rebuffed and driven away, for Nazerman wouldn't entertain anyone who doesn't have anything to pawn. Others come for compassion or fellow human warmth but they have no place in this pawn shop. 

Nazerman has a junior assistant with him, a Hispanic by the name of Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sánchez) who appears to have been involved with some hoodlums in the past but is now trying to go clean. He is very ambitious and flamboyant and wants to be a protege under Nazerman to possibly learn some tricks of the trade. Nazerman however is mostly very rude to him barring a couple of occasions when he genuinely teaches him something. 

Every once in a while Nazerman visits the wife of a friend who died in the concentration camps. He supports her financially and has physical relations with her. However, even this arrangement and a female company doesn't seem to bring Nazerman any joy, partly because the woman's bedridden, cantankerous old father Mendel (Baruch Lumet) does not approve. He attacks Nazerman verbally and asks him "Does blood ever flow through you, Sol Nazerman?" 

It is a wonder that despite such difficult behaviour, Nazerman still has people like kindly Miss Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), another lonely soul who tries to come close to him but is bluntly told to the face to stay out of his life! Then there are other problematic individuals he has to deal with, like the mobster Rodriguez (Brock Peters) who uses the pawn shop as a front to run his nefarious activities. 

Nazerman goes on through this kind of nihilistic existence on a daily basis and his motto seems to be to purge himself of any kind of emotion as a means to get over the trauma that affected him in those years. "I have escaped from the emotions", he says to Miss Birchfield as he asks her to stay out his life! Tormented by memories of helplessness and guilt, and to save himself from a lifelong depression, Nazerman has carved himself out to be a hard-hearted man, devoid of any shred of humanity, over the years, on the other side of the camps. In a scene that would make the viewer almost hate Nazerman, the old father of the widow (Marketa Kimbrell) he visits, dies and she turns to him for help asking him what she should do. A merciless Nazerman snaps back, " bury him. There's nothing else you can do. You want me to come cry with you?"

Lumet's film is a searing character sketch of a man trying hard to stay detached from society but one whose repressed humanity eventually gets the better of him. This is a man so devastated by his past that he chooses to go the other extreme and build a wall around himself; a wall of total detachment, that would protect him from softening! Such a conflicted and complex character couldn't have been portrayed more accurately and we have Rod Steiger's towering performance to thank for this. Nazerman becomes aware that it is not humanly possible to cease to be human. And hence, despite his icy cold demeanor towards almost everyone including the visitors to his shop, those flashes of his nightmarish past keep coming back to him.

In a bizarre editing technique inspired from the French New Wave, we see fraction-of-a-second flashback scenes of the horrors faced by Nazerman in the concentration camps. These flashes are disorienting for the viewer, but they perhaps emphasize Nazerman's attempts at ridding himself of these memories. They appear, but he wants them to disappear in a flash. He is trying to leave that horrid past behind. These split second frames later evolve into longer scenes, ones that are pertinent to showcase the increasing conflict of Nazerman with his own soul towards the latter half of the film, when a turn of events sees him desperately trying to save his stone exterior from eroding away to expose his softer side. Also notable about the editing is how some occurrences in the present remind Nazerman of some disturbing happenings in the past. The scenes flash back and forth rapidly, like a flip book. For instance, when a weeping, possibly heartbroken girl comes to pawn her ring and shows Nazerman the back of her hand, he is reminded of how rings were taken away from the fingers of fellow prisoners in the concentration camps.

While the film is heavily intense with gripping portions of heightened drama and some seriously crushing moments, it could've done without the highly inappropriate jazz score by Quincy Jones. Moreover, there are some awfully stagey acts by some of the supporting cast, most importantly Jaime Sánchez who sometimes irritates with his over-the-top performance and stilted delivery. But it is bits with him and his prostitute girlfriend (Thelma Oliver) that provide some of the greatest acting moments for Steiger as he holds our attention with his angry monologues with some snapping dialog and theatrics that are powerful to say the least.

Where the script falters is when they try to intersperse a heist subplot almost randomly over an outburst between Jesus and Nazerman. "The Pawnbroker" could've done without these unnecessary developments that lead to a cliched, violent denouement that you very well see coming. The film just needed to be what it intended to be; a character study of a detached man forced to face his human side owing to all the warmth and misery around him. For this aspect and for Rod Steiger's bravura act, this overlooked and forgotten Sidney Lumet classic deserves to be watched.

Score: 8/10

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Just Before Nightfall (Juste Avant la Nuit) (1971)

***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.***

In a "Psycho"-like beginning, the opening long shot of an apartment building moves into one of the windows where a blonde seductress Laura (Anna Douking) in her sultry voice asks a middle-aged Charles (Michel Bouquet), a somewhat harried looking bloke, to get rough with her. "Come and play, or I'll make you pay", she purrs. Charles utters, "Please...". He probably is fed up with all of that. Next thing we know, on her demand, he puts his hand round her neck and soon, she is dead. Charles calmly walks away from the scene, although he doesn't seem mentally calm.

He has just committed the murder of his mistress. What's more, the deceased happens to be Charles' best friend François's (François Périer) wife. Charles is a very well-to-do individual with a respectable, well-paying job. He is married to a beautiful woman, Hélène (Stéphane Audran) and they have two beautiful kids. All of them reside in a plush upmarket home. This is one happy family.

So now where do you expect this story to go? There's infidelity and there is murder. There is a grave incident that can jeopardize a friendship and a marriage. One might think it would head into the familiar territory of Charles trying to save himself from being charged with the murder but would get caught eventually. But filmmaker Claude Chabrol takes a sharp deviation and completely avoids the oft trodden paths. He just defenestrates any shred of predictability and leaves us awestruck with this gripping tragedy with a subversive edge.

"Just Before Nightfall" is a very intelligent examination of profound guilt and how it threatens to destroy an individual's existence as he knows it, forget that of his family and friends who he may well let down tremendously, should they be made privy to his deeds. This is more so, when this individual is a normal, legit man, a man who values his family and friends, only just happens to stray once in his life much to his own regret too. He isn't really a killer. Murder just occurs. A stray incident; perhaps he didn't intend it to be that way.

Or perhaps that was the only way to end what he regretted. It is a complicated scheme of things; an amoral deed, done on impulse to destroy immorality and go back to moral ways? An extreme act carried out by a soft, gentle man who couldn't hurt a fly; someone who cannot even fathom the idea of living with blood on his hands, feels suffocated and has to rely on a dose of Laudanum to sleep peacefully at night.

There is an overwhelming feeling of remorse, as Charles walks about depressed, is unable to concentrate on his work and what's more, even empathizes with a trusted old man Bardin (Paul Temps) accused of embezzling some funds at his workplace. This is one complex scenario presented by Chabrol. How can a man, himself guilty of a crime of murder possibly judge someone who allegedly stole something? But even if Charles killed someone he isn't really that kind of a person. So for all you know, Bardin could be in the same boat as Charles; an otherwise upright individual who made one mistake. Would it be just to scar him for life? While Charles' junior associate expresses his cynicism about Bardin, Charles probably finds himself looking in the mirror when confronted with the situation of judging him!

Sleepwalking through his life, post the incident, Charles keeps walking with a huge load on his chest. He knows though, that the law would have nothing against him. There is no evidence that could implicate him in the crime and this very fact keeps eating away at him. He has been seen once with Laura by her friend Gina Mallardi (Marina Ninchi), and this, she confides in a shattered François after the funeral. But François lays all doubts to rest and says he and Charles are the best of friends and going to the police with his name would only ruin things for their relationship. In one of the film's best scenes, at one point, a guilt-ridden Charles is dying to confess to François but is simply unable to muster the courage to speak it out loud and hence ends up moving only his lips but not voicing it out!

Charles is a tortured soul who cannot get by knowing that he can never get caught. He feels the need to be punished, to be attacked, to be crucified for what he has done. And yet he cannot achieve it the easy way. Eventually Charles decides to confess to the two individuals who would most be affected by his deeds. What follows in the film's game-changing, ironic final half hour is beyond incredible and yet utterly convincing. In a startling display of moral complexities, Chabrol's film attempts at looking at a heinous crime such as murder from a subjective angle. It is all about making a sound decision rather than the textbook definition of a right one. Charles wants to be judged, but no one is ready to judge him.

In a way, he is being judged if they prefer to exonerate him and aren't really willing to send him to the gallows for what he did. Much to his frustration, there seems to be forgiveness and absolution all around him! François's unforeseen confessions and his view of the overall matter is shocking and yet upon careful thought, one cannot deny that a rational stand is taken, simply by looking at the bigger picture, the greater good and eventually swaying towards the better, more loved and valued human being! Chabrol makes us mute spectators and at the same time has us agreeing wholeheartedly with the choices made by his characters. In fact, the audiences themselves are faced with a dilemma. The lines between wrong and right seem to be blurred with such a predicament at hand.

There is some wonderful dialog exchanged in two very important scenes that are the backbone of the entire film. The audiences' quandary is accentuated thanks to Michel Bouquet's masterful performance. You actually feel like a judge having a tough time passing a judgment on a man so lovable and full of heart and shudder at the thought of sending him to the chair! His expression of remorse, his angst, suffocation and helplessness over being unable to get over his guilt is so effortlessly believable, it just makes you want to go and hug the guy, not punish him! Of course, Bouquet's tour de force performance is extremely well supported by François Périer, the broken husband of Laura and Stephane Audran as Charles' loving and faithful wife. As a matter of fact, the dynamics of her character are revealed much later in the final few minutes in a dramatic turn of events.

"Just Before Nightfall" or "Juste Avant la Nuit" is an absolute masterpiece from the great Claude Chabrol. His virtuoso direction and a firm grip on the narrative featuring some of the most realistic characters and convincing developments has to be seen to be believed. Although the slightly over-the-top portrayal of Charles's mother (Clelia Matania), which, even if to take a dig at the bourgeoisie, was somewhat uncalled for, it is an extremely minor nitpick that can be easily overlooked.

Score: 10/10

Monday, April 21, 2014

De Poolse Bruid (The Polish Bride) (1998)

It isn't like we haven't seen many films of this kind before, but "The Polish Bride" still feels as refreshing as newly tilled soil. Maybe it is the hypnotic beauty of the Dutch countryside that is so poetically captured on camera, it is difficult not to be mesmerized and swept away by its sheer ethereal nature. Or maybe it is the very alluring depiction of a carefree life of isolation in the scenic, flat lands that makes you want to live that life even if for a short while.

Only all that comes a few minutes into the film in a striking contrast of sorts when it comes to changing backdrops in cinema. A startling opening sequence reveals a bloodied young woman running from something or someone in the urban streets. It isn't clear how far she runs, but she finds herself collapsing near the isolated farm land of a solitary farmer.

The farmer is Henk (Jaap Spijkers), a loner, possibly in his 40s, quite unaffected in his mannerisms and appears to live like a robot, religiously taking care of his ancestral property. The woman is Anna (Monic Hendrickx) who seems to have escaped from some place of immense suffering, but it is unclear exactly what, although some dream sequences while still reeling under the shock and fatigue of her great escape, hint at a possible forced prostitution and rape.

Henk takes Anna in, washes her, gives her place to rest and food to eat, but does not demand any kind of explanation. She doesn't offer any either, not necessarily because of reluctance of any kind but because they speak different languages. While he is Dutch, she is Polish. Regardless of the language barrier, Henk doesn't appear to be one to pry, and lets her be, just assuming she is some woman who may have been saved from a great deal of trouble.

Everything seems to have been accepted as it is. Finally when Anna has regained her composure, she offers (in her broken Dutch), albeit with an alarming alacrity, to help out as a cleaning lady in the house and stay on. Perhaps it is because she feels secure, considering no matter how gruff on the surface, Henk never makes advances on her, so she instantly trusts him. Henk appears grumpy upon hearing this proposal, but does not resist. His comfort zone has been disturbed slightly, and hence the reaction, perhaps, but he doesn't have the heart to ask her to go and is possibly secretly happy that his lonesome life will finally spice up with some much needed female company. The two continue to cohabit without speaking a word except exchanging some essential communication through her broken Dutch, learning word by word from her dictionary which Henk buys for her!

A mechanical existence continues with Anna helping out, him working his land, and both finally sharing a meal and retiring to bed in their respective rooms. This strange mutual understanding predictably begins to blossom into a more organic bond, when Anna's past knocks on their door, threatening to create ripples in the calm waters of their existence.
However, Karim Traïdia isn't really interested in answering questions about Anna's past, or making a mystery story out of the secret life of Anna. He is more interested in showcasing a unique attachment formed by accident, one that goes on to become strong and inseparable without much being communicated through words between the pair. The entire running time mostly focuses on the gradual fructification of this connection. Any formulaic development is cleverly tossed out the window, and even as you expect Henk to confront Anna regarding her history at some point of time, nary a word is discussed about where she came from, and what she was running from. In a sparsely populated land such as Groningen where the film is set, loneliness can really get to you and in such a circumstance it isn't entirely unconvincing if one quickly gels with a single human connect that comes across. In the process of the development of their bond, Traïdia in his deliberately paced screenplay, takes us through the inherent monotony of the lives of the farmers. 

Anna soon joins Henk on his farming routines. Both of them rest in the serenity and chomp away on their apples, the crunch of which is audibly loud in the serene silence of the fields. All credit to the remarkable sound design of course, which, for most of the film comprises of diegetic sounds, but also gives way to somber melancholic background scores at intervals. There is a lyrical quality in the way the scenery in the farm and the far off horizon is shot. It evokes an otherworldly feeling of peace and almost puts you in a meditative mood.

Even if one may feel that the storyline goes nowhere, the facet that is particularly well done and endearing to behold is the way Anna slowly starts behaving like Henk's wife, even bossing him around, forbidding him to do anything before a shower upon his return home, and insisting that he pray before he partakes of the meal she very earnestly cooks for him. While Henk continues to huff with Anna's display of authority over his life, he is obviously bowled over from inside. The feeling that for once, someone is being caring and lovingly commanding; affectionately teaching him manners and etiquettes is palpable beneath that unfriendly exterior. Once in a while, they make trips to town for shopping. It gives Anna delight and Henk experiences a newfound joy in Anna's company as she buys nice shirts for him. The progression of the story is in fact the progression of their relationship with a majority of the proceedings being devoid of dialog. There's some subtle humour in these tender moments that bring a smile to your face.

Monic Hendrickx's winning performance is one of the major strengths of the film. It is a spectacularly nuanced act, with every tiny movement of her facial muscles conveying a range of emotions. Be it that mischievous smile, the questioning look, the inability to communicate, the little joys and sorrows, all so effortless and discernible, it is a splendid act all the way. She is well supported by Jaap Spijkers as the initially emotionless farmer who is required to stay deadpan for the most part of the film, until Hendrickx's character begins to transform him and he becomes more human. It is a mighty convincing transformation at that.

This is particularly evident in the aftermath of the denouement that takes you by surprise. In the dead calm of the state of affairs you don't really expect things to get so far. However, it is the way this ending unfolds that slightly disappoints rather than the actual events, and yet it does not take away from the experience of the preceding 80 odd minutes. Give "The Polish Bride" a chance. It is a well-crafted, little-known gem that is in great need of attention.

Score: 9/10

Monday, April 7, 2014

Moebius (2013)

*** Parental Advisory and Spoiler Warning: This review contains some graphic detail including some mild spoilers about the film that may not be suitable for younger readers. ***

How does one even begin to write about something like "Moebius"! Long after the film has ended you feel the need to shake off that sick feeling. You know, the kind of feeling you get when you realize a rat just happened to scurry by and its hairy skin momentarily touched your feet. Then once you have regained your composure you try to think back and process all that happened on screen and try to make sense of it in your boundaries of rationality. Your jaw aches and facial muscles slightly hurt, because you realize you have been cringing constantly and squirming in your seat, at the same time, letting out nervous laughs and yet have not been able to walk out of this 85 minute, vile mayhem! You shudder for a while and think that you have issues in the head and are beginning to actually enjoy all the perversity the Korean madman Kim Ki-duk dishes out for you!

It is better to get the premise out of the way so that the reader can decide if this film is for him/her. It all begins one day when the character credited as Mother (Lee Eun-Woo) catches her husband, the Father (Cho Jae-Hyun) cheating on her with a local store girl. In a fit of rage and frustration over his cheating ways, she attempts to do a Lorena Bobbitt on him; yes, tries to chop off his penis, but fails to do so! However, the anger still boils over and then she does it to her teenaged Son (Seo Young-Joo) instead, and before anyone could do anything about it, she eats up his chopped member and escapes into the night!

If at this point you feel the need to go and regurgitate now, it is understandable. Just know, the film is not for you. Others, read on.....!

What follows then, is an unimaginably mad circus of emasculation, incest, rape, and twisted revenge, with liberal doses of some of the nastiest displays of sadomasochism ever! It may appear that all the characters in this film are perpetually horny, but the film's focus is mostly on the human libido, the deprivation of it, and a quest for finding it again! What prevents "Moebius" from becoming a cheap C-grade snuff film posing as an art-house drama is Kim Ki-duk's treatment and some very intelligent and intense writing, still revolving around some of the most debased material ever! 

What's unique about the film is how Kim Ki-duk infuses tender warmth in a situation that is unquestionably tragic, and yet manages to evoke nervous laughs around it. After all, what could be more sorrowful and humiliating for a man than losing his manhood? You tend to express deep sympathy when the other boys make the teenaged son a butt of jokes and harass him. You tend to feel sorry when the poor father sacrifices his own penis and decides to preserve it after some careful research, in order to transplant on his son, for he somehow feels responsible for his loss! 

Meanwhile, both penis-less men bond over their loss while the father does extensive research on trying to achieve sexual gratification without genitals and succeeds in finding a technique that involves mutilation of one's own skin with a stone! And then there's the gang rape in which the son gets unwittingly dragged into, and its terrifying aftermath that gives way to some laugh out loud situations including a chase scene that involves genitals flung in the air! But the real icing on the cake is seen when the demented wiener chopping mother returns and gives this moebius strip its final shape!

"Moebius" breaks all barriers and goes all out, way beyond and raises the bar when it comes to the vileness quotient in all of the extreme Asian cinema. The film has gained notoriety for walkouts during its Venice Film Festival screening, and one viewer apparently vomited on his way to the exit! Indeed, one has to have the kind of stomach and an iron will to endure the relentless barrage of completely over the top displays of revulsive acts beyond the normal, sane human intellectual capacity. 

Most of the events are grounded in reality and yet extremely absurd to the level of being hilarious. This is the kind of film that revels in its unflinching display of sexual violence and accompanying absurdity. The comedy is of course, the kind that is intentional but not in the conventional way. This is Kim Ki-duk having fun with his audiences. It is him being a total imp, making us watch something so revolting and have fun at the same time, daring us to touch that stop/pause button.

He also makes us think and gives us front row seats to take a good look at the characters and their motivations. These are people from a normal middle class family of three, the bigger picture of which appears picture-perfect. As for the mistress of the father, she is a girl so unabashed in her ways, she doesn't mind offering herself to the father as well as his son! Despite the recklessness of the characters' actions, in the end it all makes sense in the Kim Ki-duk way, as he very slyly adds an enigmatic spiritual angle as a fitting moral of the story of sorts in at least two instances which connect the entire chaos to a teaching in Buddhism!

What's more, you don't even miss the dialog which this film is entirely devoid of! There is no spoken word, only noises made by characters; screams, gasps, moans, sobs, sounds of being beaten up, and sounds of eating! The entire story is still conveyed with extraordinary ease, with not one instant being out of place or incomprehensible. The lack of dialog gives the film a more primal touch to go with its macabre events that wouldn't be as effective though, had it not been for the grade-A performances from the entire cast. Cho Jae-Hyun as the father expresses a range of emotions through his subtle expressions. 

The guilt of being the root cause of his son's tragic loss is palpable on his face. The teenaged actor Seo Young-Joo is another great asset to the film, delivering a winning performance as the meek, bullied, emasculated boy. It is Lee Eun-Woo who shocks and awes with her dual role as the mother as well as the mistress, very effortlessly slipping into the skin and makeup of these two disparate characters and winning the most accolades.

"Moebius" is a grueling film experience that may not exactly please or delight you. Chances are, an initial reaction may be a knee-jerk, writing it off for being vulgar, cheap, almost an exploitation snuff flick! But really, you will feel its power only long after it has ended. For Kim Ki-duk throws a dart laced with a drug at you that clings on, and the effect keeps lingering. You will spend hours and days, thinking about this rather affecting, darkly comic tragedy that will stick with you like a disease that you would rather hold on to for sometime than attempt to cure immediately. And when you process your thoughts, you know that while you haven't really seen the greatest film ever made, you indeed have witnessed something groundbreaking.

Score: 8/10