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


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