Friday, August 22, 2014

Valley of the Bees (Údolí Včel) (1968)

***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.***

"Suffering is the way to God".

Welcome to the dark ages, where ignorance and religious fanaticism looms large. These are the medieval times in an unknown century, presumably the fourteenth. It is the era of the Christian Military Orders, societies of Knights with a common purpose of propagating and defending their faith. Men who commit to the life of the Order have to lead harsh lifestyles. This includes, vows of celibacy, rigorous fasting, praying, and ultimately defending the honour of their religion and faith. Deserting the Order is a punishable offense, and anyone found guilty of doing so would be tagged a traitor and could face death by some of the worst methods.

Some of these men, however, don't necessarily commit to the Order on their own accord. A few are forced into it for various reasons. They are perhaps too young to realize what they are getting into, or are paying for the sins of their fathers. In such a scenario, there are those who choose to flee. They desire the good life, settle down, marry, have kids. And why not? It's only human. But then, it's a sin to even think like that, for by doing so, you are betraying Jesus Christ. With such unpleasant ideas instilled in these men, it is not unthinkable that some have doubts, and face a strong crisis of faith. But the Order claims that they have weakened and pray that God forgive them their weakness!

František Vláčil's "Valley of the Bees" (1968) takes us right at the heart of such a grim universe. A teenaged Ondrej, angered that his much older father is marrying a girl his age in their large castle, gifts his new mother a basketful of flowers, beneath which there turn out to be a number of half-dead bats! Enraged at the insult to his new bride, Ondrej's father flings his son on a wall, badly hurting him. Calming down the next instant and regretting his act, though, the father prays that his son's life be saved, in return for which, he vows to send his son to the Order so he can dedicate the rest of his life to serving God.

Several years pass by and Ondrej grows up to be a man (Petr Cepek) in the Order, and in the process, strikes a warm friendship with his mentor, Armin (Jan Kacer). An unforeseen chain of events leads to Ondrej ultimately fleeing from the Order and seeking a path back home. A dejected Armin vows to find Ondrej and bring him back.

Vláčil tells a story that is reasonably simple, but rife with complex themes, addressing subjects like crisis of faith and the established concepts of sin and redemption. Ondrej eventually returns home to find his father dead and his stepmother Lenora grown into a beautiful woman (Vera Galatíková). Not surprisingly, there is an instant attraction, but it is sinful to have such feelings for each other, for in effect, they are mother and son, even though they've hardly known each other or lived with that kind of a bond. Both, supposed devout Christians are now faced with a huge dilemma.

Lenora flogs herself in one scene, presumably as punishment for having lustful thoughts about her stepson. But when he does make advances, she rejects them, although she seems to want him. She sighs in silence and looks on in helpless desperation when she overhears Ondrej and the maids discuss about an impossibility of there being any children in the courtyard to make it a livelier place. Quite ironically, in a bid to save the dying local Church, the priest Father Blasius (Michal Kozuch) agrees to marry off Ondrej and his stepmother, thus letting them officially sin in return for a donation!

While Ondrej is the apparent lead character here, it is the character of Armin that acts as a driving force in putting forth several of the stronger themes. Armin's desperation to bring Ondrej back may be a result of a homosexual undercurrent, although it is not made explicit. There are scenes to suggest that men committed to the Order experience a sexual urge towards their fellow knights.

One particular bawdy-looking man seems to make advances at Armin, which he rejects. The entire scene is pulled off in an implicit manner and one may even fail to notice that any such thing is implied. At one point Armin who doesn't make an eye contact with a woman says, "Men of the order do not look at women", almost serving as a veiled reference to homosexuality being a norm in sects such as the one Armin comes from!

On at least two occasions, other characters point out that Armin's body feels cold. This serves as a metaphorical reference for how dead Armin really is! All the life has been sucked out of him. He is the trained robot of the Order, a stubborn protector of the faith, one who wouldn't relent and will abide by the rules 'til the very end. There appears to be a direct attack on the rigid dogmatism of any religion, sect or organization in general. It wouldn't be wrong to think of "Valley of the Bees" as a veiled critique of the authoritarian and harsh ways of the Communist government, considering the film was released in 1968, the decade of the very important Czech new wave. Armin's stuck up ways and the authoritarianism of the head of the sect enforcing rules, very much mirrors communist traits.

A lot of ambiguity surrounds the character of Armin and his motivations, especially pertaining to his acts in the final third. Apart from the homosexual subtext discussed above, there also appears to be a strong sense of jealousy stemming from a false sense of pride and accomplishment in the faith of the Order. A very intense conversation takes place between Armin and Father Blasius. Armin vents: "Why should only the virtuous die of cold and hunger in their cells? The others live without faith and multiply like ants". Armin is left with a sense of disbelief and an obvious crisis. What good is his dedication to the Order, following all the rules, while the one who breaks them, Ondrej, is about to begin a happy life with a woman. A devastated Armin feels forsaken by God when he simply cannot come to terms with the fact that Ondrej is a much happier man, despite his supposed betrayal of Christ. And therefore, what actually drives Armin to take that final drastic step, is open to interpretation.

A film as dark, and of such intense magnitude needed a storytelling style just as dark and disquieting, and Vláčil ensures that he does justice. His film is a marvel of a period piece that puts you right in the midst of the middle ages. The attention to detail, the costumes, the sets, everything is authentic to the hilt. The poetic filming style and the bleak, black and white cinematography ensures that every frame evokes a sense of despair and desolation. 

A brooding atmosphere and a sublime, hypnotic score evoking gloom and loneliness adds to the experience and literally makes the viewer feel the chill of those godforsaken times. The long shots overlooking the castles, the fortresses and their interiors emanate a ghostly aura and a sense of foreboding. For all its style, the film would probably not have been as effective had it not been for the exceptional performances from a great primary cast of three. The actors completely understand their characters and their inner conflicts and end up delivering powerful, convincing performances.

František Vláčil's "Valley of the Bees" is a masterpiece of Czech cinema, a dark saga that has such enormous power, it will likely leave you gazing at the screen long after the final frame.

Score: 10/10

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

La Femme Infidèle (aka The Unfaithful Wife) (1969)

The opening scene showcases some extremely happy times in the garden of the Desvallées' plush home. The mother-in-law (Louise Rioton) of Charles Desvallées (Michel Bouquet) is visiting and they are all sharing light moments together. Charles and the others are all smiles, their rich country property brimming with an otherworldly satisfaction. Charles' mother-in-law and his beautiful wife Hélène (Stéphane Audran) discuss his weight pre and post their marriage, while their little son prances around. Only this display of cheerful bliss is ridiculously good to be true, and seems overdone with its immaculate perfection and saccharine sweetness. Perhaps it is a deliberate move on filmmaker Claude Chabrol's part to indicate that not all is as hunky dory as it seems on the surface.

Charles and Hélène have a real fine life, with all the luxuries in the world. But mere luxuries don't amount to complete happiness, as the rest of the plot of "La Femme Infidèle", this masterstroke of a film points out. A chance enquiry at a certain beauty parlour that Hélène usually visits, makes Charles aware that his wife has been lying to him about something; at least about where she goes during the day while he is at work. As it turns out and as the title of the film suggests, Hélène is having an affair with another man, unbeknownst to poor old Charles. This, of course, he finds out upon further scrutiny, and after hiring a private detective to follow her.

A disturbed but still, composed Charles decides to pay his competitor a visit. What follows later, forms the crux of this outstanding little drama penned and directed by the great Claude Chabrol. A regular Chabrol-esque plot that follows a bourgeois family, secrets, lies, deceit and even a murder as part of its proceedings proves to its audiences that despite the usual keywords, the film takes a shape that is anything but predictable.

So while you expect Charles to confront his wife upon the discovery of her fooling around with another man, such a thing never happens. He never takes it up with her, perhaps because he loves her way too much, or because he cares for their son, or because he feels he is better off not creating a scene about it. Chabrol's steady grip on his narrative only proves his prowess as a master storyteller, as the game-changing event in the film, the face to face meet of Charles and his wife's lover takes a rather intriguing turn.

This is the most crucial part of the film and it accentuates the nature of Charles as a person. It is very easy to empathize with this poor bloke who helplessly listens to the sordid tale of his wife's actions. Bouquet's performance here is a class act that knocks the ball right out of the park. He strikes a rather unusual conversation with his wife's lover, making him quite comfortable with their dialog. There are multiple emotions visible on Charles' visage; sadness, anger, shame, humiliation, embarrassment and loneliness. Bouquet pulls it all off so well, one can't help but stand up and applaud the amazing conviction he puts in into this performance. Your heart goes out to the overwrought Charles, as his voice quivers and softens in utter disappointment over his dark discovery.

Hélène's lover is Victor, played by Maurice Ronet, another fine actor, who unfortunately doesn't get much scenery to chew on, but pulls off his part remarkably well. The sense of comfort he exhibits in conversing with the husband of his lover and an awkwardness mixed with it is palpable, even as he offers his guest another drink of whiskey! Victor's charming, innocent face and gentlemanly behaviour and body language in fact makes the viewer take a liking for him rather than hate him for stealing another person's wife. His attitude seems to be somewhat nonchalant as well.

The final third of the film displays Chabrol's true writing genius. Most of what occurs in the middle portion of the film is left unsaid. There are certain consequences of these events and they affect the couple in different ways. Only neither party is vocal about their feelings or thoughts and such a scenario is equally frustrating and delightfully realistic for the viewing audience. Despite a lack of verbal communication or confrontation, a lot ends up being conveyed anyway! As with most Chabrol dramas, there is an inherent moral complexity associated with "La Femme Infidèle". It is really difficult to take sides here and on the flip side, you find yourself empathizing with what's universally accepted as morally wrong!

It is Chabrol's command on the script that ensures that a tragedy of such an epic proportion, afflicting a happy family, keeps itself from turning into a weepy soap opera and remains firmly grounded. The subtlety and the silence triumphs, and any chance of the account of the tough times in the life of the Desvallées' succumbing to melodramatic conflicts and heightened moments, is quite gracefully avoided. The second half the film is overflowing with suspense and intrigue. Every minute is tense, and every move of each character demands the viewer's full attention. It is honestly, very difficult to look away as one waits with bated breath throughout. It is the build-up that is more nail-biting than the anticipation of the outcome!

"La Femme Infidèle" was remade by Adrian Lyne in the 2002 American film "Unfaithful" starring Diane Lane and Richard Gere which was a decent film at best. Later, the Lyne film was unofficially and shamelessly ripped off and remade into at least three, very tacky, Indian B-films. Nevertheless, the original source film, not surprisingly towers as a masterwork and proves itself to be one of the greatest French thrillers out there.

Score: 9/10

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Gozu (2003)

Celebrated, controversial and cult Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike abandons the gore that he is famous for, in favour of more atmosphere this time around. He does retain the gross-out quotient however, by including some of the sickest visuals ever, that may have you cringing in disgust!

"The Great Yakuza Horror theatre: Gozu" as the title credits go, begins on an alarming note with a bunch of gangsters, the Japanese mob (Yakuza) meeting up at a local cafe. One of them, by the name of Ozaki (Shô Aikawa) interrupts the proceedings to express his concern about a strange but harmless looking dog outside, that he claims is a yakuza dog, trained to kill the yakuza! In a shocking display of animal cruelty Ozaki takes charge and tortures the dog to death, as a terrified audience watches him, transfixed. It appears that Ozaki has gone completely bonkers and the mob boss is concerned, owing to which he is sent on a long drive along with a faithful member of the group, Minami (Yûta Sone, credited as Hideki Sone) to a disposal site apparently to get rid of him. Ozaki displays more fits of madness on the way and soon, Minami reaches a dead end.

Up until this point, the film looks like a gleefully absurdist dark comedy revolving around gangsters, replete with their off-kilter behavior and intentionally absurd situations. But very soon, Ozaki disappears when Minami stops for a coffee break. It is from this juncture onwards that "Gozu" enters the bizarro territory and starts to resemble a Freudian fever nightmare full of occurrences that can only happen in hallucinations and psychotic dreams. This is of course, a very good thing, and exactly the kind of stuff that gets this reviewer on a cinematic high, except, only when it's spectacularly imaginative and handled with the kind of finesse that is necessary in such cases.

Miike commands our attention for a good part of the film that now takes the shape of a surreal horror comedy with moments that are genuinely freaky and scary and some that are wickedly hilarious. He introduces one looney character after another involved in one crazy scenario after another. There is a man with a skin pigmentation problem, who wants to share a room with Minami. There is a ghostly inn run by a pair of old siblings. 

The old woman who is the owner of the inn oozes milk from her breasts, offers it to her customers and also bottles it and stores it as breakfast material! Her brother is a supposed psychic who can talk to evil spirits, but before that, has to be caned by his sister to conjure up the ghosts. There are two patrons in a coffee shop that seem to be sitting at their table forever, and never go away, always discussing the weather conditions, even 'til the next day. The coffee shop owners are all cross-dressers!

If that is not enough to make you want to reach out for the damn movie already, then there is an awesomely bizarre and chilling encounter with a minotaur-like creature with the head of a cow and the body of a man, salivating at the mouth and holding out its giant tongue! A man suddenly exists as a woman. And then there is a birth scene like you have never ever witnessed before!

Oh yes, Miike's film penned by Sakichi Satô has a good share of twisted ideas that could give any lover of surrealism and bizarre psychological horror a major high and immense gratification. There is most of what you would expect from a film that encompasses such material. There is a real fine minimalist, but creepy atmosphere that directly reflects the low budget that the film was made on. The film is shot through a greenish-yellow filter that complements the atmosphere. The sound design is excellent, especially in certain scenes that are capable of disturbing your composure and scare you witless. Some jaw-dropping imagery raises its head high once in a while and successfully makes us chuckle nervously at the sheer warped imagination!

Alas, for a length of almost 130 minutes, sequences of such magnitude are few and far between. More so, when Minami's search for Ozaki begins to look like a wild goose chase, the proceedings start to get repetitive and a tad boring. It doesn't help that the film already suffers from an uneven pace. Not that the creativity isn't there. There is just less of it to justify a length of this sort. And what has been used to fill the gaps seems half-baked and underdone. When Miike does go over the top, it is with the increasingly shocking sexual imagery and some elements which are downright distasteful and tend to overstay their welcome. Surely, toilet humour need not have been part of something that is trying to be distressing. 

A freewheeling narrative such as this usually has immense potential, for in a film like "Gozu" that does not have to adhere to rationale and logic, one can really go all out with their imagination. One could see such outlandishness of a diverse nature in Seijun Suzuki's Taisho Roman Trilogy, especially. Those films were also psychological/supernatural thrillers and ghost stories and were far more imaginative with their content. Only "Gozu" isn't as wondrous and well-executed as either Suzuki's films or even some of David Lynch's masterpieces that it is often compared to. The ideas are there, but they feel somewhat lacking. It is evident that the screenwriter-director duo have definitely tried very hard. One just wishes there was more meat in the writing, more misadventures, creative ones at that, and not mere adherence to shock-value sexuality and accompanying absurd humour, especially like what is shown towards the end. 

It is not difficult to form a broad level interpretation of the events, given the visual symbols and the fact that the protagonist is a virgin who has just had a phimosis operation . It could be interpreted as another coming-of-age fantasy that takes the shape of a nightmare, reminding one of Jaromil Jires' "Valerie and her week of Wonders" (1970). 

"Gozu" could have been a lot better, given its universe and the material at hand. Only it needed extra spicing up with some more inventive weirdness rather than the dependency on bizarre sexuality and pointless repetition of ideas. Miike dabbles in an area that is not his, and does deliver to an extent, but falls short of the benchmark set by some other filmmakers.

Score: 7/10

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Witchhammer (1970)

In 1678, somewhere in the Northern Moravian region of the (now) Czech Republic, an old beggar woman was spotted hiding a piece of the sacramental bread during a communion in a church. When the priest present there confronted her and demanded an explanation for her action, she begged forgiveness and said she was carrying it for a certain other woman, whose cow had stopped giving milk. They believed the holy wafer would make the cow give milk again! The priest reported the matter to the countess, and upon discussing with some others, it was concluded that the women were not victims of some superstitious beliefs, but rather, practitioners of witchcraft!

A witch commission led by an ex-inquisitor by the name of Boblig was formed. Boblig was given all the powers to do whatever was deemed necessary to get rid of witchcraft in the countess's estate. Driven by a greed for wealth, power and recognition, Boblig commenced his trials starting with three women, which triggered a chain reaction of false accusations, wrongful arrests, and forced confessions by the most barbarous acts of medieval third degree torture.

All this eventually led to execution by burning at the stake, of hundreds of innocents including a well-respected priest. This gross injustice continued for almost eighteen years 'til Boblig's death. He went on amassing the wealth of the people he prosecuted, and no one could do anything about it. Those who dared protest, were implicated as well. This is no fable. It is a true story; a dark chapter in the history of Moravia, that witnessed one of the worst faces of human moral corruption ever.

Václav Kaplický penned a novel on these events, which was later adapted by director Otakar Vávra in his sledge hammer of a film aptly titled "Witchhammer" (1970). The film came out towards the end of the most rebellious movement in cinema, the Czech New Wave. Vávra in his stark, dark film pulls no punches and delivers a brutal, gut-wrenching slab of cinema that leaves you feeling appalled and helpless.

It is an era that is incredibly medieval, literally as well as figuratively, where religion and superstition dominate to the extreme, and heretics face censure and punishment for anything that goes against the established Catholic beliefs. It also appears to be commonly accepted that witches exist and they meet at some local meeting place called Peter's Rock, where they indulge in all sorts of sacrilegious activities including fornication with the devil! Anyone suspected of even going near that place is subject to persecution and death by burning if charges of witchcraft are proven against him/her!

In such a scenario, the ugly face of religious extremism and dogmatism reveals itself. The incident of the old beggar woman, as it happened, acts as a starting point and thus ensues, a series of events that beggars the imagination. Meaningless arrests, confessions forced out of innocent women and men by cruel methods including subjecting to the rack and the thumbscrews, and eventually the unjust execution of these hapless beings by burning at the stake in public presence. The older women are left to suffer insufferable pain and beating while the more younger women also become a victim of the lust of their captors. A humiliating full body examination of a woman becomes an excuse, to find the devil's mark which could very well be a mole!

All this at the hands of a hungry madman who begins to love and strives to maintain his authority. Vávra intersperses shots of a cloaked monk standing in the shadows, mumbling misogynist recitation, presumably from the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century book on the prosecution of witches, juxtaposed against the film's steady buildup to atrocities of increasing magnitude. The monk's more horror-fiction-like chilling narration reveals an irony in the film's brutally realistic proceedings. Who is really at one with the devil here? The punished or the punisher?

This reviewer was blissfully unaware that the film is a historically true account of actual events that happened in the 17th century on this very planet and hence upon the realization of the same, the impact was all the more powerful. Injustice of this ghastly nature went on for years, and nobody did anything to stop it. Whatever happened to humanity back then? How does a lousy, sloppy innkeeper who served drinks in an empty inn suddenly begin to control people's lives? It all boggles the mind!

But then one realizes that it wasn't just in those days that such things happened. This is a classic example to give to explain historic recurrence. The trials happened in the 17th century. Similar witch trials happened in colonial Massachusetts around the same time ( In the 20th century, happened the Communist regime that led to the said film movement, the Czech New Wave.

Obviously, Otakar Vávra drew parallels between Václav Kaplický's novel based on the real incidents then, and the real incidents now (during the 60s in Czechoslovakia) and in a move of genius, presented a veiled allegory in the form of a historical drama! The dig at the Communist Government and their unjust, haphazard ways starts getting clearer when there seems to be no respite of any sort, and one begins to see where the film is going. A power-drunk Boblig blurts out in an empty dining hall: "I have moved forward. All it takes is courage, a firm goal and no scruples. I am at the top". Isn't that true of essentially any Fascist leader?

Similarly, albeit also in contrast, during the era of US Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, there was McCarthyism, the anti-communist movement, which was characterized by reckless accusations of disloyalty and communist tendencies against thousands of Americans. There was a similar fear campaign against communist infiltration in the US government much like the paranoia surrounding infiltration by the witches among God-fearing Christians as depicted in the film. History indeed does repeat itself then!

A major theme explored in the film is that of the credibility of torture as a means of extorting out a confession and an ultimate means to reach the truth. One of the characters in the film even spells out this aspect when he says that one shouldn't underestimate bodily pain. It then brings to mind several contemporary situations, like methods used post 9/11 and other such instances where third degree torture is inflicted and relied on to incriminate someone. But how much truth is really there to these judgements after all?

Many of the Czech New Wave films, especially those that satirize the communist government, have an absurd comedy flavor to them and the leaders represented in those films are bungling idiots. "Witchhammer" is a film of a different breed, however. It is one that isn't really a comedy, but a rather serious, tragic, harrowing, agonizing, gut-wrenching, infuriating, grit-your-teeth-with-helplessness-and-anger kind of a film! It has the tendency to emotionally affect and disturb, and make you feel worse than any modern day torture porn film. And therefore one expects, in a powerful film such as this, given the film's grave universe, that the characters are at least treated with the same kind of gravity.

It is not a major issue, but a tad disappointing, however, that some comic relief has been resorted to and there are some blatantly caricaturish portrayals of certain characters. The side characters are excusable, but even the antagonist, Boblig (Vladimír Smeral) is shown to be a textbook villain who is a loud, lecherous, nose-blowing drunk with an evil smirk and cartoonish mannerisms! It would've benefited to make him a more realistic character, like Dean Lautner (Elo Romancik). Along with being aggressive as he is here, he could also have embodied a more grave, cold, ruthless persona. That would give off an aura of a real fascist leader emblem that this character intends to be.

Beautifully cinematographed by Josef Illik in sharp black and white and chiaroscuro to accentuate the exceedingly bleak proceedings, wonderfully scored by Jiri Srnka and replete with some splendid performances, "Witchhammer" is one hell of a hidden disturber that would give a run for the money to all the modern horror films centering around torture. Definitely watch if you have a reasonably strong heart. It will be a while before the effect wears out.

Score: 9/10