Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Deserters and the Nomads (1968)

Slovak filmmaker Juraj Jakubisko plunges us headlong into his doomed world in "The Deserters and the Nomads" (1968) also known as "The Deserters and the Pilgrims". War is all around you. There is absolutely no time to think, as he takes us straight into the battlefield with a camera that appears to be sleeping on the ground and rolling about, filming a wounded soldier as gunshots and explosions are heard. It is World War I. The soldier struggles, spits out dust, scrambles along the muddied, bloodied field, all exhausted and lost. The soldier is actually a gypsy boy, Kalman (Ferencz Gejza) sent out to war. Troubled with all the violence, and haunted by visions of mindless massacre, he decides to desert the battlefield and reunite with his gypsy family. 

Kalman's mind is fatigued. He feels guilty of killing strangers. He sees blood on his hands. He tries to wash it in the water, but the stains won't go away. He cannot eat, for he is disgusted at the sight of his bloodied hands. The village elders suggest fire to cleanse the blood. But neither water, nor fire is strong enough to wash it off. All the violence has mentally affected the soldier. The guilt eats into his head. He cannot seem to wash his hands of the blood of the myriad other soldiers and possibly civilians. It brings to mind the famous scene of Lady Macbeth and her guilt-ridden stupor when she tries to wash imaginary blood stains off her hands. A worn out Kalman drifts frequently into half sedated dreams full of greens, animals, streams and half naked girlfriends through coloured lenses. His ears are filled with lilting music that he has grown up with.

But Kalman's peace has got to be short-lived, for the Hussars are after his life. Deserters are never spared. Amid celebrations, gypsy music and dance, another flamboyant deserter, Martin (Mikulas Ladizinsky) makes an appearance along with some strange characters and before we know it, he starts a peasants rebellion against the Hussars. The bloodshed and atrocities go all out, and more chaos ensues. The mayhem abruptly ends with a weird looking bald man sitting on the ground and looking for something. Another man with a sickle asks him what he is looking for. The answer he gets is, "Happiness". The man with the sickle laughs. Will a man's search for happiness ever end? Doesn't look like it.

War has long ravaged mankind, thanks to a quest for wealth, power and dominion, since the ancient days. We have had wars; big, destructive wars, two major ones in the last century itself, WWI and WWII. There continue to be other wars and attacks all over the globe to this day. And what is gained? Is it enough to justify the humongous losses? The destruction of property, the deaths of innocent civilians, the countless orphaned children, worst of all, the corruption of humanity itself!

Hate begets hate, humans cease to be humans, all the emotions, sentiments erode away. Life is literally sucked out of innocent civilians, especially the survivors, those who witness the killings of their fellow beings. They are left benumbed and psychologically scarred for life. Let us face it. War is a kind of an abomination that may never end. What is the futuristic projection of such a scenario, years from now? Total chaos, anarchy, wiping out of humanity 'til there will be nothing left to kill? Or will order ever be restored? Will all of mankind ever finally find their happiness?

We will never know, but Jakubisko with his terrifying vision of the war, its destructive nature and a possible aftermath, gives us one of the most awe-inspiring films ever made. "The Deserters and the Nomads" is really an anthology of three tales, all revolving around war and total annihilation. The first story set in WWI is that of Kalman, the deserting gypsy soldier. 

The second tale is set in WWII, with the war coming to an end, but confusion and disorder continues, with communication breakdown and an overall moral decay of human beings themselves. Trust is shattered, every stranger is a spy and hence cannot be trusted, even if he happens to be a noble soul merely buying eggs. It is a strange occupation to have in a film like this, but perhaps Jakubisko wrote this character with the idea that eggs are a symbol of new life. Perhaps the man who bought them represented a hope for the future. Quite unfortunately, he is imprisoned, gunned down and his basketful of eggs eventually ends up being destroyed and wolfed down by the merciless Russians who take him to be a German spy. Ultimately, a lack of communication leads to all hell breaking loose anyway!

You don't catch your breath just yet, and suddenly find yourself transported to an underground world. It looks like an asylum of some kind; a very scary, hellish, dark place straight out of someone's nightmare, shot through a greenish filter. Men and women of various shapes and sizes are being treated there, or dying from diseases. Some of them are completely insane. One recurring character from the previous two segments, the same creepy looking bald man ends up there too. 

He calls himself the death and mumbles some prophetic verses. It appears that this is another time leap. It's the post-apocalyptic world following a nuclear holocaust. A handful of survivors are living underground, quarantined from the outside ("12 Monkeys" anyone?). A nurse dreams of going on the outside and finding out what it is like. The bald guy takes her with him and both find themselves in a vast emptiness with nary a soul around. Life has come full circle. The pair are like the new Adam and Eve, the sole inhabitants of their new paradise that looks like earth but could very well be hell!

"The Deserters and the Nomads" is truly avant-garde; an explosive film, bursting with energy with a wildly free-from narrative. There are maddening visuals, multicoloured filters, distortions, dizzying camera work, hallucinatory, trippy imagery and sound, and gypsy music and dance aplenty to go with the film's brutal proceedings. With the excellent episodic nature that takes a break to narrate a small snippet of the filmmaker's feelings and objective of the film, this is an extraordinary piece of cinema that is brimming with originality in its intent and structure and most of the stylistic choices. The roller-coaster camerawork, appearance of musical performances, and the hyperactive, theatrical opera-like acts amid a single chaotic frame in the film reminds of Sergei Parajanov's works (especially "Shadows of Forgotten ancestors" (1964)) and also Andrzej Zulawski's "The Devil" (1972). Emir Kusturica seems to have found some inspiration in the portrayal of the gypsy lifestyle, folk music and an overall earthy feel and characters especially in the first episode.

With the horrors of war theme very much in your face, the film does tend to be a little didactic despite the narrative absurdities, but given the ambitious scope of the film and its original storytelling technique, these minor complaints can certainly be overlooked. All said and done, "The Deserters and the Nomads" is one harrowing spectacle from start to end. Chances are, it will leave you depressed, drained and gasping for air. This is the testament to the power and effectiveness of Jakubisko's cinema, the way it psychologically affects you, and to his astounding vision that is rather dark and cynical, the way he concludes on a grim note. Even the bald death spells it out in the end, " created man, but he will one day even kill you".

Score: 10/10


Monday, July 21, 2014

Elena (2011)

A bird is seen perched upon a cold, lifeless, leafless tree. Simultaneously, we see interiors of a similarly cold, empty, but plush, wealthy home. The opening frame of the dry tree is so dead, that we are almost tricked into believing that it is a still frame, but for the diegetic crowing of a few birds. The stillness and the dead calm of the tree and of this particular shot is suddenly destroyed when another bird enters the scene and perches itself on the other end of the branch, and shakes it vigorously, thereby disturbing the tranquility and creating ripples in an established, stable system.

The central plot of Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Elena" (2011) sums up this scenario to a significant extent. A portly old ex-nurse Elena (Nadezhda Markina), is married to a wealthy ex-patient she took care of some ten years ago. The husband is an old rich man by the name of Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). He has an estranged, hedonist daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova) from a previous marriage, who admittedly needs her father only for the money. Elena, on the other hand, has a no-good son, Sergei (Aleksey Rozin), from a previous marriage, and his family, including a 17 year old grandson who desperately needs money to get into college, failing which he may have to be sent to military service. 

Each member of the couple ends up defending their own blood child when it comes to arguing about who deserves more attention and care based on their overall demeanor and gratefulness toward their respective parent. A sudden change of events concerning Vladimir's health problem leads to the question of a will, which leads to further complications, as Katya's change of heart towards her father and vice versa pose as a threat to the future of Elena's wasted son. Blood threatens to be thicker than water, and circumstances put Elena in a fix as she finds herself subjected to the ultimate test of loyalty...!

Zvyagintsev, who previously crafted an equally complex, gripping and effective family drama, "The Return" (2003), surprises and disturbs with this minimal tale that unfolds with its deliberate pace and calm atmosphere, and yet hits you like a ton of bricks when it gets to its turning point. This time around, Zyvagintsev takes his own sweet time in letting his audiences observe his characters. And therefore, in what may seem like wasted running time, we are shown some subtle, yet deliberate sequence of events, that make us well aware of the kind of characters we are dealing with.

The many shades of gray of each character are revealed in some realistic and convincing sequences, never far-fetched. Nevertheless, it is nothing that would make you hate or love a character, but merely understand where the person is coming from and what kind of an influence he/she may have on the people who they are closely related with. 

Quite a few fleeting clues are thrown about, hinting at the overall message of the story and how a bad seed begets a bad seed, and how every person needs to gauge their standing in the society or the kind of parents they would make, to even think of breeding and bringing more children of their own kind to this world. The very nihilistic, cynical and unabashedly frank daughter of Vladimir, Katya, even seems to befriend the old man after all, for she always portrays with all honesty that the only string attaching her to her father is that of monetary needs. And yet, somewhere in her arrogance, we at least see an integrity, unlike her old father, who seems to be all heart otherwise, but then doesn't think twice before leching at a comely young gym member, his daughter's age, working out as he sweats it out on a treadmill!

Not offering any ray of hope on the other side, is Elena's son Sergei, a lazy, jobless drunk, who cannot even afford his teenage son's education, yet wastes away his life and doesn't care about getting employed. Perhaps it is out of a sense of taking his stepfather for granted and that his financial needs would be taken care of anyway. How hypocritical of him then, that initially refused a grant of any sort, he calls Vladimir a tight-ass and later, when he ends up getting some sum of money after all, goes on to make a toast to the old man, and decides to name his unborn son after him! 

It is a two-faced world all the way, and one wonders if it is the socio-economic environment as depicted in the film, that has created such an indifferent, inhuman atmosphere. In an almost Claude Chabrol-esque finesse, Zvyagintsev reveals the inherent class conflict, be it in terms of mentality or in terms of lifestyle. Despite all the awesomely colourful and crisp cinematography by Mikhail Krichman, we see a distinction between classes that takes almost black and white extremes! Vladimir's home is a dream house, with all the works of luxuries, while Sergei's place is a crummy, shabby old neighbourhood run down apartment, that can barely contain two, let alone, his upcoming family of five!

Symbolic images like the birds and two smoking chimneys flanking one non-smoking one clearly drive home the gist of the story of a dying old man and the two most important but headstrong women in his life, his new wife and his ungrateful daughter, both wanting a piece of the man's dough! An excellent musical score composed by Philip Glass makes its welcome appearance at scenes that, on a normal basis build up to nothing significant event-wise, but do serve to reflect an internal angst or sentiment of a character in that very moment. 

These instances and the brilliantly written pieces of tense drama are accentuated by the marvelous performances by an all round talented cast. Andrey Smirnov is spectacular as the old man, confident at one point and well aware of his mortality on the other side of an illness, displaying an eerie genuineness to his ailing self. Surpassing Smirnov is the astonishingly natural Nadezhda Markina in her portrayal of the complex, eponymous Elena. This is a performance for the ages, and coming from an actor who makes her debut on the big screen here after graduating from the small screen. Emerging strong in supporting acts are Elena Lyadova as the compulsively rude Katya and Aleksey Rozin as her beer-guzzling stepbrother. 

A film like "Elena" is a sheer delight for every cinephile hungry for some tense, brilliantly acted, edgy, morally complex films that don't have to try too hard to establish that they are a work of true genius. It would be a crime to miss this film.

Score: 9/10

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The White Meadows (2009)

***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.***

"The White Meadows" (2009) is a rather strange offering from the Iranian neck of the woods that, believe it or not, got its writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof and his editor and filmmaker Jafar Panahi arrested! Both were sentenced to six years imprisonment for film-related activities that were considered propagandist and went against the interests of national security. And then it boggles the mind as to how a film of such visionary magnitude and sheer poetic beauty could tick off the powers that be.

This bizarre tale unfolds in the form of an allegorical fable, and despite its surreal nature, it is clear from the content that the message of the film is very much rooted in the stark reality of a nation that thrives on repression and censorship. "The White Meadows" is a slyly veiled critique of various issues in contemporary Iranian society. Not everything that happens in the film can be taken literally, and yet the meaning that is revealed beneath its many layers, shockingly mirrors real life scenario. This is a testament to the state of a society that is suffocated by religious extremism, dogmatism, misogyny, and grave injustice in the area of arts and creativity.

Brace yourself for an outlandish plot that revolves around a middle-aged boatman, Rahmat (Hassan Pourshirazi), with his briefcase containing tiny glass flasks. He moves around landscapes that resemble something straight out of a heavenly dream; large water-bodies that contain almost desolate salt-encrusted islands, filmed on location at Lake Urmia. Well, it all looks like heaven anyway, but the life in these parts is hellish! 

The islands are all sparsely populated, seemingly self-sufficient habitats to some of the biggest simpletons and most superstitious folk who follow and believe in some of the craziest ancient traditions and lores. What does Rahmat do for a living? He is a collector of people's sorrows! Literally, he collects their tears in his flasks as they mourn their dead, or lay bare their deepest emotions. What he does with these tears, no one knows, except there is a myth going around, that he converts them into pearls! "Tears should be treated with respect. They are valuable. Not a single drop can be wasted", he explains.

Rahmat is a quiet observer and a listener, yet not one to intervene. He witnesses the worst kind of stupidity, unfairness and barbarism on each island he visits, but never gets directly involved in their businesses. He is not a saint either, as we soon learn. He is a practical man, however, and often insensitive. So while he lends an ear to little man Khojaste, who is supposed to carry glass jars filled with confessions down to a deep dark well in order to appease a disgruntled fairy, he insists that he go ahead with the task, for people were all waiting for it to reach its conclusion. 

But who would really look out for the poor bloke who could be marching towards certain death, thanks to a ridiculous tale cooked up by a senile old lady who insists that the water is salty because the fairy is angry! What of these glass jars? They are heavy with words that are actually petitions of the inhabitants to the fairy. But as clear as the transparency of the jars, is the fact that there is nothing in them, really. Much like how voices are unheard, written protests and complaints mean nothing and hence are invisible to an authoritarian fundamentalist regime.

Circumstance puts Rahmat in charge of a young boy who wants to travel across the waters to find his father, whose brain dried up and he went missing! Nothing else is known about this lost father except his name, yet his son sets out anyway. Perhaps his father also escaped the salty prisons, much like his son now did, in order to get away from the rigours there, in search of an air of freedom, but possibly perished in the attempt. The boy's presence puts a reluctant Rahmat's job in jeopardy and hence he is asked to pretend to be deaf and dumb in order to stay on. Isn't this the fate of most common folk in the Islamic Republic of Iran? Practically everyone who wants to belong, has to be mute and conform, else face the consequences. How ironic then, that eventually God works a miracle and puts a stop to the boy's pretense! But Rahmat is least concerned with the boy's woes, so much that he doesn't do a lot to heal the boy's wounds, but doesn't miss collecting that single tear that trickles down his cheek.

On another island, Rahmat sees a beautiful young girl about to be sent off to become the bride of the sea. That entails, of course, a ritualistic sacrifice by drowning her after testifying that she is a virgin! This episode is perhaps the most infuriating of the lot. Rahmat can't do much about this either. He just momentarily pities her by saying, "It's fate"; then proceeds to do his job by opening up his flask for the mourners who are congratulated by the attendees of the ghastly ceremony. The ritual itself could be an exaggerated version of some unknown custom, but this vignette speaks volumes of the condition of women in a male dominated society.

The most blatant attack on the system and its censoring ways comes in the vignette of the painter who paints the sea red. This attracts the ire of the elders who won't accept that the sea isn't blue. But the painter insists that he sees it that way; it's his vision. Perhaps he sees the salty water soaked in the blood of the victims that have been long perishing in it and the ever growing sea, consuming the people trapped on the islands. Two other young men are ordered to subject the painter to some treatment to cure his vision. 

This includes some atrocities like forcing him to look at the sun and pouring animal urine in his eyes, until he begins to see that the sea is blue again! Nevertheless, the artist in him refuses to relent. He always sees red, or some other colour. Anything but blue; far from pleasant! Eventually it leads to his banishment. This vignette in many ways reminds of filmmakers and artists who dared to rebel with their works and faced bans and imprisonments in authoritarian societies. The great Sergei Parajanov comes to mind along with several other modern artists, and ironically, in a prophetic twist of fate, the maker of this film himself!

The same episode features a supplement in the form of a mini circus of a monkey dressed up in a bridal costume, chained and trained to entertain people. This strange but pertinent snippet serves as a connecting bridge between the the previous episode of the sacrificed bride and this one of the corrupted artist! The bridal costume brings to mind the sacrificial bride, made to dance on the whims of her masters. Likewise, isn't the monkey also a performer, an artist, but actually a trained puppet whose strings are pulled by its master? 

Perhaps that is the plight of all artists, essentially. No free speech, no freedom of self expression, but a forced way of life, imposed by their rulers. We see another chained monkey later in the film; shortly after we see some prisoners on an island, shackled in similar chains! On this same island, weeps an old man who dreams of fleeing to a place where the water is fresh and the land is not a salty marsh. Perhaps the old man echoes the voice of every other individual who feels trapped in an inescapable nightmare of an oppressive regime.

The weirdest events happen in the final scene when the viewer is finally made aware as to the fate of the tears collected. In this same scene which takes place, seemingly at some socially well off property, we come across a painting on the wall that looks like that of an island in a vast, red sea! And then there's a woman that bears a striking resemblance to the bride of the sea! There are various ways to interpret this puzzling scene, but the symbolic giving away of the girl to some higher power manifests literally here, and that the same kind of painting for which its artist faced banishment, adorns the wall of this large abode, perhaps, revealing an inherent hypocrisy of the places higher up? 

"The White Meadows" commands the viewer's attention, even though it may leave him/her baffled with more questions than answers. Yet, a lot of the intricacies will gradually reveal themselves once the viewer decides to submit to the sheer power of a cinematic product such as this. Films like these don't get made very often, and anyone who is up for something challenging and thought-provoking is bound to embrace it with open arms. Others who don't care to dissect or analyze may still find some beauty to behold in its visual and sonic brilliance.

The fate of the filmmaker of "The White Meadows" is unknown as of now, but the fate of this film lies in the hands of the reader of this post. This haunting masterpiece, a criminally underseen work of art with a subversive edge, is actually the voice of its creator, Mohammad Rasoulof begging to be heard across the globe. And it is up to us, to experience it and spread the word.

Score: 10/10