Monday, March 30, 2015

Kanal (1957)

Films depicting the horrors of war are aplenty. Some take us right into the battlefield and make us witness the rigours faced by the soldiers in battle. Then there are others that focus on the plight of civilians during an ongoing war. There are also a few others that paint a disturbing picture of the aftermath of war, and its effects on both, the soldiers as well as the civilians. Many of these films either showcase only the carnage with liberal doses of violence, keeping the characters at a good distance, or make us feel at home with the characters, intermittently shifting focus to the killing and mayhem.

Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda accomplishes a rare feat with a film that clocks to only about 95 minutes. He gives us a fully fleshed out product that not only makes us well acquainted with its ensemble of characters as individually recognizable and relatable people, but also takes us right in the middle of all the pandemonium, making us feel the bombs, the guns, the madness and in this case, waist-deep grime of a sewer!

The year is 1944, and the Warsaw uprising is nearing its end. A small company of 43 surviving members of the Home Army resistance fighters comprising of soldiers as well as civilians led by Lt. Zadra (Wienczyslaw Glinski) find a new position in the remains of a half destroyed bourgeois house in an abandoned territory. The German army is on the warpath, capturing most of the land and marching on ahead, bombing and evacuating almost all Polish territories. The company has an eclectic bunch of fighters, males and females of different age groups and aspirations. Some act as messengers and helpers, others as the fighting frontmen, and they even have the wide-eyed passionate music composer Michal (Vladek Sheybal) among them.

"Kanal" tells the harrowing tale of the struggle of these brave people, to survive the brutal onslaught of the Nazis, especially of their last-ditch attempt to retreat downtown, through long underground sewers when they are surrounded and all hope seems lost. Only the task isn't going to be an easy one, as it becomes clear once the wading through the muck commences.

Wajda wastes no time and takes us right into the action, by announcing that what would follow is the chronicling of the final hours of this company of the resistance members. He keeps it compact and fleeting but never once does anything feel inadequate in Jerzy Stefan Stawiński's screenplay that covers practically all the facets and sentiments associated with a situation such as this. It is a chilling moment when an already desensitized Michal makes that final call to his house in the nick of time before we hear his wife say that the Germans are coming to get them and the line gets disconnected. Some others steal amorous moments and have a little party before the imminent doom.

It is heartening to see that almost all of them are ready and know that they may die soon, and yet, find some light moments to laugh about in the face of adversity, just as the music composer finds a piano and starts smashing some tunes to ease the moment. It isn't long before we find ourselves in the midst of smouldering rubble as the attack catches the party unawares when some of them are catching up on some rest and others trying hard to find a drop of water to shave!

The journey through the sewers is the toughest ordeal the company has to go through. Apart from plodding through endlessly long stretches of human waste, they have to save themselves from the surprise attack of poisonous gas released by the Germans in the sewers to either kill the escapees or bring them out of hiding! The script at this juncture is dripping with pure genius, as Wajda and Stawiński add some clever humour in small doses that accentuates the fearlessness of the group. Take for instance the scene when Michal the composer just commences what could be his final journey through the sewers and exclaims how amazing the acoustics were, down there! There's a good dose of such fleeting gallows humour in the face of certain death in the form of crackling dialog, enough to garner applause for the inspiring bravado on display.

Such elements in a film sometimes attract criticism for being unrealistic, but considering that the script has been helmed by a man who was himself part of a resistance operation and survived in the sewers, his credibility can hardly be doubted. Much like the initial display of courage is entirely believable, so is the gradual draining of enthusiasm. As the gas fumes begin to destroy the troops in body and spirit, their hopes begin to dwindle and so does their frame of mind. Differing mindsets and conflicting opinions regarding the code of honour and general ethics result in deception and animosity. It is an accurate depiction of fear, madness and a decline of morals.

While the writing shimmers with intelligence and well-timed twists, Wajda's visual portrayal of it shines in the darkness, literally! The first half gives us a tour of the dusty ruins on the exterior, and the entire second half practically takes place in the dark sewers. It gives the director ample opportunity to show off some fine chiaroscuro lighting effects and an effectively eerie use of shadows. The underground passage is unknown to most, much like their fate. The surprise gas attack adds to the chaos. Wajda taps this setting extremely well to create a hellish, surreal atmosphere; a seemingly endless, Kafkaesque tunnel of no escape. The resulting sense of confusion and hysteria that prevails, is aptly demonstrated by the filmmaker. He owes a lot to his actors as well, who seem to lose themselves in their characters, making you feel their predicament.

"Kanal" is a tragic, disturbing masterpiece of Polish cinema, one that is so powerful that you might feel the need to play something cheerful post the film to lighten up the mood.

Score: 10/10

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Metalhead (2013)

In a remote Icelandic village, a twelve year old Hera watches her heavy-metal loving older brother die in a gruesome tractor accident. This incident has a huge psychological impact on her young mind as well as her dairy farmer parents. During the funeral, Hera looks at Jesus Christ with scorn and storms out of the church. A rebellious seed has somehow been sown into her, as she appears to denounce God and goes on to embrace her brother's heavy metal passion.

Time passes by, and she grows up into a brooding teenager with a cold attitude, while her parents go on with their lives, participating in the village community affairs and church choir. Clearly, none of the family members have moved on or attained closure. There are still demons of the past and the horrible accident, lurking about.

Hera's mother practically dwells like a zombie and drifts off while in the kitchen or when at the table. Hera's father is somewhat indifferent as well. The traumatic episode almost leaves a permanent dent on their being. In such a scenario, Hera finds solace in heavy metal. She stays out, albeit in isolation, drinks, drives recklessly and then retires to the comfort of her little room, its walls all plastered with heavy metal posters, and goes on to smash some tunes to mosh to.

Being an ardent lover of music, especially of the metal kind, Ragnar Bragason's "Metalhead" (2013) and its eyeball-grabbing poster, that cropped up from somewhere in the icy cold regions of Iceland, instantly caught my attention. Bragason's film is primarily an examination of grief and the struggle of a family in dealing with loss. Heavy metal music and the attitude and image usually associated with it, merely serve as tools for the youngest member, Hera, to deal with it and carry on with her life, in her own way.

Music has healing powers they say, and anyone with a significant connect to music of any kind experiences this facet in some phase of their life, finding support and companionship in music. Heavy metal and its subgenres are usually associated with rebellion, grief, anger, hatred, anti-establishment, anti-religion and everything that's normally considered 'against the grain'. It is the kind of music that's anything but happy or cheerful! And that's what makes it tick and that's how the youth of society cling on to it and seek that ultimate comfort and release, rarely found elsewhere. The love for metal takes a highly personal form, and it is entirely up to the individual how he/she receives the music they listen to.

The central character Hera, at the outset, enters the metal world, purely as a means of a rebellion against God or society, or so it seems, and possibly in a hope to continue her brother's legacy. She doesn't seem to have a natural inclination for it, and therefore the very beginning of this character arc somewhat disappoints. Using her brother's death as an excuse to condemn God and turn to metal comes off as forced and unconvincing. You don't just become a metalhead overnight! It's usually an acquired taste, one that develops and matures over time when you venture into. Merely embodying the metal persona is not enough. Perhaps at that wee age, she is only aware of its rebellious image and doesn't care much about the music, the liking for which only grows later.

It doesn't help matters that the first half hour of the film is slower than the slow life where the film is set and the lead character is rather dull and uninteresting, colder than the coldest snowflake! Maybe it isn't Thora Bjorg Helga's performance that's to blame, maybe it is Bragason's portrayal of the character itself, for she shows the right acting chops at a later stage. For the most part, there's a major hindrance in making any kind of emotional connect with her. Her poseur approach to the image of metal is relatable, however, considering her age. It's surprising, however, that she defends the lyrics of some of the bands, presumably those that don't support an Anti-Christian or Satanist sentiment, in front of the priest. Why should she do that, if she has openly denounced God and religion?

The proceedings reach laughable proportions, when a rough demo Hera records in her cow shed, finds its way to some guys in a record label who wish to release it. One of the guys is wearing a Bolt Thrower T-shirt, and they seem like serious fellows in the business who know their stuff and have obviously heard more seasoned death and black metal. And yet his mate says that Hera's solo rough demo "is the most evil and brutal music he has ever heard", something that's hardly a believable statement coming from a record label guy who promotes metal.

Whether the metal music and the personality adopted by Hera is actually helping her case, or ruining her, further becomes a matter of concern. But subsequently, this also confuses us about the muddled intent of the filmmaker and the point he is trying to make about this form of music. Bragason seems to be a man who knows the music and the image associated with it, there is no question about it. So is he championing the music, or sending out a cautionary message against it?

Normalcy seems to be attained for Hera when she gives up on the long, open hair and the black tees and begins to tie her hair and dress decently, thereby, at least in appearance, giving up the metal lifestyle. The tape in her car is labelled 'Metal' but there seems to be something else playing in it. Are we to believe that the love for such music causes more harm than good? But then, this changed Hera goes back to playing music. So is she now a liberated person who can safely go back to her original taste in music? It doesn't make much sense; perhaps these inconsistencies are meant to directly reflect Hera's confusion about how she has turned out.

All said and done, ultimately, the whole heavy metal worship angle seems superficial, a decorative item on what is actually a regular tale of a family coping with a tragedy, tinged with some melodrama, that we've seen a zillion times already. Bragason brings nothing very new to the table except going a little more into detail of the central character's musical preferences. The distant, stoic protagonist, however, further affects the narrative that already feels empty, failing to induce any emotional investment on part of the viewer.

All is not lost, however. There's a decent enough story at its core, although nothing we haven't seen before. There are some beautiful shots of rural Iceland captured by August Jakobsson. There are good moments revolving particularly around the new priest in the village, who also happens to be into heavy metal at one point of time, complete with an Iron Maiden tattoo on his arm! Hera finds a friend in him, as he understands and shares her passion for the music.

One of the finer moments in the film has Hera and the priest listening to and appreciating Judas Priest's music in his car. However, the best parts of the film only come towards the end, one being the community hall performance that gains instant appreciation among the audiences once the harsh black metal is toned down to a more Icelandic, goth rock sound with clean female vocals, and second being the family moshing session to Megadeth's "Symphony of Destruction".

"Metalhead" is a film that could've been much better; a missed opportunity and a disappointment for metalhead cinephiles craving to see a great marriage of metal and cinema. One wishes there was more depth in the writing and the central character at the heart of it all wasn't as tepid. Bragason delivers a film that's a decent watch at best.

Score: 7/10