Monday, June 23, 2014

Ashik Kerib (1988)

"I am a minstrel, and this is my lute." 

These are some of the recurring lines in legendary Soviet-Armenian artist and filmmaker Sergei Parajanov's last completed film, "Ashik Kerib" (1988), which is yet another oddly whimsical odyssey, a fantastical folk tale, told in signature Parajanov style. This time, it is Parajanov's personal vision of Mikhail Lermontov's Turkish fairy tale of the same name.

The story of Ashik Kerib is a very simple lore of a poor minstrel, Kerib, who plays his lute, and is in love with Magul, the daughter of a rich merchant. But the merchant, obviously rejects Kerib and his family, calling them paupers. A vow is taken by the couple and Magul promises to wait for a thousand days and thousand nights for Kerib, as he decides to go away to get rich and return to claim her hand again.

Parajanov being Parajanov, adopts an esoteric style of narration in the vein of Azerbaijani folklore and his own cinematic tropes. So expect a disjointed, episodic screenplay in the form of tableaux vivants and vignettes, plenty of still images of cultural icons and artifacts, an abundance of music, dance and songs, colourful costumes, exotic set designs...the works! This film is far more outlandish in its storytelling approach in comparison to the earlier "The Legend of Suram Fortress", especially considering how simple the tale actually is.

"Ashik Kerib" is an exemplary work of a free-form narrative and goes all over with its idiosyncrasies and oddities as the events get increasingly bizarre. Very surprisingly, there is a generous dose of comedy as well, in an otherwise serious story, showcasing Parajanov's fine comical flair. For instance, the way Magul's father expresses his disapproval of Kerib by literally throwing up and jumping around like a clown, is as shocking a scene as it is funny! Adding to the comical tone are some hilarious absurdities and totally oddball characters that come and go in Kerib's strange adventure. This includes the outrageously funny Nadir Pasha with a fake moustache, and the mistresses by his side, carrying toy machine guns, in an off-the-wall anachronistic trope!

The magical realism in the tale exudes even more magical qualities, thanks to the touch of Parajanov who seems to be having a ball here. He probably was in a joyously playful mood when he wrote the film, but the child in him seems to be at its most energetic best, as seems the case in sequences such as these. It is very much likely that some of the sequences were improvised. An experiment in flippancy, incorporating unlikely humour and really going way over the top, Parajanov literally toys around with a multitude of ideas!

The dialog in the film is off-kilter and poetic as expected. It is never straightforward. In many of the sequences, characters speak, but their lips don't move. The voices are dubbed over, giving any scene a strange, surreal quality, as the characters appear to mime, and converse with their thoughts and expressions! This facet may seem off-putting to some, but it works exceedingly well in the film's favour, given its theatrical nature. Music dominates almost every episode. In fact, some of the vignettes only have music, songs and dance, but no dialog! The music is quite evocative of the Azerbaijan culture, as are the other visuals.

The emblematic pomegranates make their appearance at various junctures and even change their colours as per the mood reflected in a scene! When Ashik Kerib is falsely declared dead by the evil Kurshud-Bek, his mother wails, goes blind and just as that happens, the image on the screens starts to blur and pomegranates turn black! In another happier sequence that seems to reflect a kind of liberation, and a new beginning, the fruit appears white.

One of the freakiest parts of the film, (apart from one nightmarish sequence of a two-headed tiger and its constantly rolling head!) is the marriages of the deaf, dumb and blind where Ashik Kerib is invited to play! Both these ceremonies take place in some unreal, open locations. Especially in the marriage of the deaf and dumb, the minstrel seems to become one of them when he suggests through sign language that he can't speak or hear! Could it be a hidden reference; Parajanov's own reflection on his state of being as a visual artist who felt handicapped owing to the cruel Soviet authorities' and their diktats on his work and subsequent imprisonment? 

After all, the story itself is of a music artist on a forced exile of sorts to please the people at high places! Interestingly, the handicap manifests in a tangible form when Nadir Pasha sends Ashik Kerib to the War-like Sultan! Kerib is shackled in this scene and he says he isn't able to play anymore. While his hands appear to be considerably mobile to at least pluck a note, the strings on his instrument literally appear to be missing, and hence, not being able to produce any music!

As crazy as it may look and sound, you cannot ignore the oeuvre of Sergei Parajanov, an artist unlike any other. Parajanov's methods were the most unusual, and his film outputs were the kind you couldn't possibly club or compare with any other, stylistically or otherwise. It is difficult to fault this film, unless the style itself fails to appeal to the viewer. Those who do find appeal though, would be able to embrace the film's astonishing qualities and soak in its enchanting, mythical universe. A visually ravishing, charming and aurally pleasing musical, "Ashik Kerib" is a sublime work of art that is a fitting swansong, a great ending to a brave career of the man who set new benchmarks in cinema.

Score: 9/10 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Close-up (1990)

They all make films based on real events, don't they? But you can bet your bottom dollar, you haven't seen anything quite like this. It doesn't get more real than Abbas Kiarostami's "Close-Up" (1990), a rare film, very unique in its intent and format that has to be seen to be believed. Not only does it blur the line between fiction and reality, but it literally obliterates any distinction between the two in a manner so seamless, that Kiarostami himself becomes the great deceiver, the kind his protagonist Hossain Sabzian (starring as himself) is.

"Close-Up" is an up, close and personal look at the real life case of Hossain Sabzian, an ordinary man, an ardent lover of art and film who passed himself off as popular filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf to the Ahankhah family. Posing as the director, he expressed interest in using the abode of the Ahankhahs as his next filming location, while also promising their sons roles in the film. Subsequently his game was up and he faced arrest and a trial. 

Now here's the big one. All of the above characters involved in the story are portrayed by their real selves, names unchanged! What's more, Kiarostami appears as himself, films the actual trial and also recreates some of the events prior to Hossain's arrest using these very people as actors! So here is a recreation of real events, that is NOT stylized, that is stripped of all romanticism and is delivered to you in its raw form. Well...almost!

The actual trial filmed is presented in a coarse, grainy camera footage, which initially comes across as a stylistic choice, because the acting itself did not differ from the re-enacted events that are filmed with a crisper, cleaner film quality. But then again, they were not acting after all! Or were they, since they knew the trial was being filmed? So where does the acting end and where does it begin? "Close-up" is a perfect example of meta cinema, yet one in which one can't really tell if its a documentary or a docu-drama or if there's a film within a film or a reality within a film, or a film within a reality, or all of it! But classification of any sort is pointless, really. What we have at hand is a minimalist thriller that's also a complex, layered, existential drama with a very identifiable issue of the human condition at its core.

Not just its protagonist, but essentially everyone involved is trying to make their presence felt, and establish some sort of identity for themselves, for which Sabzian's case provides the perfect opportunity, even for Sabzian himself! The journalist Farazmand, who gets to cover the case thinks that this case could be his career defining, crowning moment, as he explains in the excellent opening scene. He knows that this is the story that could get him his recognition, much like famous journalist Oriana Fallaci whom he idolizes. 

He explains to the cab driver that Fallaci has international recognition for she has the nose for sniffing out stories that nobody else knows about; something of her own, something that distinguishes her from the others. It's all about a quest to become somebody from nobody. Not surprising, that to achieve this, Farazmand goes through a lot of struggle. He has to shell out and even borrow some money from the plaintiffs in order to pay his cab fare, all for the sake of this one sensational news item that could perhaps catapult him to stardom. He even struggles to find a tape recorder, as he requests for it from door to door. This shows how struggle is inherently a huge part of his sorry life.

Even the man at the helm, Kiarostami, apparently left all his current projects when he heard of this case, to film "Close-up", since the subject caught his interest. This was the film that got Kiarostami more attention in the West; his defining film, that made him much more internationally recognized. Thus, both Kiarostami and Farazmand got their watershed moments with "Close-up" and the case at its center. In one scene, we see Kiarostami trying to prepone the trial date to suit his needs! Could it be deliberate on Kiarostami's part to include that bit, to show that in a way, even he was being selfish to some extent?

Mr. Ahankhah is quite right then, when he tells Kiarostami, "Everyone who has become involved in our case so far has tried to use the situation to his own advantage"! But what about the Ahankhahs themselves? Hasn't the case been a blessing in disguise, that they all got to appear in an Abbas Kiarostami film? In a way Hossain Sabzian, while pretending to be a filmmaker and promising them roles, eventually ended up getting them all a role in a real film! It's unimaginable, the compromise it must've taken for these people to meet and act with the man who tricked them! But then again, maybe they were all in it for something. To be famous? For money? For recognition? However, the claim of still being somebody is made, anyway, as one of Ahankhah's sons complains, "He (Farazmand) portrayed us as simple people..but we are not".

A tin can is kicked randomly. It endlessly rolls across the road, and finally stops at some point. But it is in great danger of being kicked again, and it does! The next kick happens when the kicker finds a tape recorder that he desperately needs! This next kick decides its fate. The can keeps getting kicked from place to place, perhaps symbolic of the fate of the strugglers in the film; a never ending journey that may perhaps never attain stability and satisfaction.

Sabzian, at the beginning of his trial is in danger of incarceration. Yet he says he would let Kiarostami film his trial. Why? Because they are his audience! Imprisonment or not, at least via Kiarostami's film, he gets his few minutes of fame that he so aspired for and he can ensure that his voice is heard. This is where the social commentary aspect of "Close-up" sets in. Poverty and desperation drives good men like Sabzian to follow the path of deception, merely to command some respect, morality be damned! Sabzian, however, makes some profound points in his statement. He speaks about a dream of equality across social classes and a lesson in humility. The kind of world he imagines doesn't, and perhaps may never, exist. You cannot have a popular filmmaker mingle with other ordinary beings as equals. 

The icing on the cake is that strange sequence in which the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf comes face to face with Sabzian. Does Kiarostami set up a surprise meet between the director and Sabzian, as a kind gesture for the latter? Or is it to film a juicy climax scene for his own product? One great act (pun intended), two intentions, one rooted in reality, the other in cinema. The audio suddenly goes bad during this time. Perhaps, the microphone on Makhmalbaf's lapel malfunctions, or perhaps the choice of sporadic muted moments was intentional. We may never know. Behold, the deliberately distorted vision and sound in this scene, as the audio feed gets abruptly muted, while the the real and the fake Mohsen are filmed through a cracked windshield!

As a cinematic experience, the film surely sucks you in. Kiarostami knows drama very well and practically owns his audience for those 90 odd minutes. Despite its minimalism, Kiarostami commands your attention in the entire duration of the film, as there is constantly something happening on screen. Although filmed as a raw documentary/docudrama, Kiarostami adds some naturalistic humour to bring a smile to your face. Like for instance when Farazmand exclaims as he approaches the Ahankhah house, "How strange that my best story should take place at a dead end". It is also commendable that despite being non-professionals, all the actors deliver convincing performances, especially Hossain Farazmand as the anxious reporter and of course, Hossain Sabzian in the lead role.

Further interesting bits make for some ironic humour; specially the court judge's confident statement, "...and I don't see anything worth filming"! Bet he had to eat his words upon witnessing the final product. This is Kiarostami's magnum opus; one bold, daring meta film that is his own, as he changes the very definition of cinema. It may not cater to everyone's cinematic taste, but "Close-up" deserves all the accolades it has been receiving from film circles and critics.

Score: 10/10

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984)

The young son of a serf, long granted freedom by his master, sacrifices his life by letting himself be entombed alive within the brick walls of the Suram Fortress to keep it from crumbling. Or so the ancient Georgian legend goes. Daniel Chonqadze first adopted this folk tale into his book. Sergei Parajanov, one of the most unique and controversial voices in the Soviet Union, made a film out of this folklore in his own cinematic language and the results were.....beyond extraordinary!

This is Parajanov's first film after a ban of nearly 15 years which included a couple of periods of imprisonment. Parajanov was always in the bad books of the Soviet authorities, thanks to his artistically rebellious ways that defied convention, especially the socialist realist style, which was the only authorized art form at the time. The political environment began to cool down by the mid 80s and that is when Parajanov was finally able to deliver an unrestrained product, true to the style he embraced in his first two acclaimed works that led to all the turmoil (not considering anything that came before 1964's "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" that he publicly disowned).

With a little help from influential actor/director Dodo Abashidze, a recharged Parajanov bounced back in 1984 with "The Legend of Suram Fortress". How ironic though that the filmmaker marked his return with a film about the son of a slave, a man in bondage. Despite attaining freedom, his son ultimately ends up being immured alive within the brick walls of a fortress, in order to strengthen it. Once a slave, forever a slave; ultimately his doomed destiny leads him to be shackled in death! It eerily mirrors Parajanov's own life as a slave to the system who was sacrificed by being restrained by the powers that be in order to strengthen their positions and safeguard the interests of their nation!

Parajanov is in top form here, despite the hiatus, and adds his own signature flavour to a seemingly simple tale infused with its fantastical elements and magical realism. This is a story rife with its princes, warriors, fortune-tellers, unfulfilled love, valour, revenge and sacrifice, a tale the likes of which you may have heard orally from your grandmothers as children and passed on through generations.

The director presents to the audience, his astounding vision of the said lore, and paints a living, breathing canvas, brimming with bedazzling colours, breathtaking imagery and rich symbolism that is out of this world. The plot moves, but not in the manner you would expect it to. The narrative is rather fragmented, sometimes disjoint and disorienting, in the form of a series of vignettes or tableaux. Each of these vignettes is quite poetic in its approach, with some stylized, off-kilter dialog that allows us to make some sense of the story and its proceedings. There are visible jump cuts, a pace that is uneven, sudden, hurried shifts and time leaps that may mystify and not be very easy to follow but a couple of viewings are enough to sufficiently comprehend it all.

The episodic, fractured nature of the screenplay could be likened to an interrupted, partially broken dream stemming from a distorted, fading memory of age-old fables, that lose some of their threads, as certain bits and pages get lost in transition across generations. A generous dose of bizarre, surreal visuals add to its oneiric qualities and so does the unsettling, eerie musical score and sound design. It is interesting how the sound quality of some of the spoken words is modulated in certain scenes producing an echo or distant effect. Accentuating the phantasmagorical and even theatrical nature of the screenplay is the choice of filming locations. It is notable that most of the scenes are filmed outdoors, barring a few that are shot indoors.

Many of these outdoor sequences appear to take place at a common location, with the backdrop of two statues. This location is what appears to be the ruins of the Suram fortress. However, the same backdrop is used even in sequences that take place across different timelines. It almost acts like a common stage for the actors in the film. There's an anachronistic blink and miss moment, difficult to spot if one is not paying careful attention but its a mystery as to why the filmmaker makes such a choice. Perhaps it is there for no real reason and is just another addition to some of the randomness strewn about. Or perhaps it's a subtle joke about how all time was one; and even the situation in modern day USSR was just as archaic!

The camera technique and choices of filming itself is a display of eccentricity, and in a good way, of course. Most scenes begin with closeup static shots of certain artifacts, animals or birds. Then in others, the camera moves back to such a distance that it is impossible to spot the tiny characters in a frame! All that is visible are the picturesque, vast open landscapes. As is the case with most Parajanov films, there is a great emphasis on culture, in this case, the Georgian culture. The lavish costumes, masks, makeup, the music and dance, and even acrobatics such as tight-rope walking and other stunts are in abundance.

Films like "The Legend of Suram Fortress" don't get made often. Filmmakers like Sergei Parajanov who dare to speak a radical language, don't come by often either. This film is Parajanov's unsung masterpiece that deserves to be recognized among his greatest achievements. It is likely that it may frustrate some viewers with its peculiar storytelling approach, but others who connect with it would revel in its enchanting, mystical grandeur.

Score: 10/10