Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Charulata (1964)

The striking opening sequence, all of the first almost ten minutes, captures the entire universe of the eponymous Charulata with an effortless grace. The depiction of desolation and ennui, usually more associated with Antonioni, is portrayed with a lucidity and perfection that is rare.

Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) glides through her palatial mansion, its set design meticulously constructed to reflect the era in which the story is set. Its vast emptiness mirrors Charu's lonesome existence, while her newspaper owner husband Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) continues to be preoccupied with his work, which he is also quite passionate about, even comparing it to Charu, stating it to be her Souten or a second wife (translated as 'rival' in the Criterion English subs!).

A lover of literature and poetry, a big fan of Bankim Chandra Chaterjee and perhaps a hidden literary genius herself, we see Charu biding her time roaming about, browsing through books, humming songs and sewing. But more importantly, she also kills her boredom by taking a curious look at the outside world through the half covered windows with a gaze that often switches between contemplative and childlike. The latter quality is more evident in the way she moves from window to window, simply to catch a glimpse of a portly man with an umbrella passing by, her opera glasses always acting as her lens to observe a world that seems distant or inaccessible to her.

In a not-so-subtle manner, Ray shows how Charu feels at a distance even from her husband who fails to notice her as he walks past, following which she fixates the opera glasses on him, watching him walk out of the frame.

Bhupati isn't the stereotypical wife-neglecting husband, however. He does love his wife. He is just so preoccupied in his business and passion of voicing out his political beliefs through his paper (Charu's rival, as mentioned) that he is temporarily unaware of his wife's presence and her needs. It suddenly strikes him that she may be lonely when he finally notices that she has enough time to embroider a nice handkerchief for him! He is also quite the naïve one, bestowing his trust on his family members without giving it second thought. One betrays him, the other stops short of doing so! Bhupati is a well written flawed character; a good human being, designed to be sympathized with, but one who's so preoccupied with his paper and armchair activism that he is totally ignorant of what’s brewing under his very nose; including his wife's loneliness, her attraction to his cousin and an evil scheme at work.

The dark void of Charu's existence sees some light with the arrival of Amal, Bhupati's younger cousin, who is introduced with an overtly symbolic entry of a storm (a literal storm brings in an emotional storm to come!). Amal is a young, vibrant chap, quite passionate about literature and poetry. Charu is gradually swept away by his charm and a common interest. She feels liberated, merely in experiencing this attraction!  The fabulous garden scene that's a highlight of the film, demonstrates this perfectly.

Some great camera wizardry at display right there; with the camera itself possibly mounted on a swing and capturing the beautiful Charu humming away and then cutting to Amal, who sways in and out of her line of sight. The joyous stupor comes to an abrupt halt, however, when Charu notices a woman with a child and is reminded that she is also childless; and perhaps can never have one with her husband. And then the worried gaze shifts towards Amal; a sense of sudden guilt perhaps makes her quickly snap out of it!

What's often brought up as a commonly applied motif is the women shot behind bars of windows, obviously symbolizing a woman's emotional imprisonment despite the lavishness that surrounds her. It isn't just Charu but Manda (Gitali Roy) and others as well, filmed behind the bars, perhaps extending Charu's plight and making her an epitome of the 19th century Indian woman, a prisoner of her own fate and of the male-dominated society, married off to some rich man in an arranged ceremony and forced to give up her personal freedom. It was an era when it was not very common for married women to venture out or socialize and hence the entrapment was a real deal; emotional as well as physical, symbolized further by the caged birds.

Ironically, Charu's husband is an advocate of liberalism, a vocal supporter of the renaissance movement as well. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the father of Indian renaissance is mentioned; he was famous for abolishing the infamous Sati system in which a woman was forced to die with her husband in his funeral pyre! And despite his liberal views, Bhupati also belongs to this very segment of society in which women are left to languish in their trapped existence, rarely at liberty to be independent, and forced to be at the mercy of their spouses.

Charulata's empty existence does find some meaning eventually when she goes ahead and writes and publishes an article in vengeance, just because Amal asks her to "show some respect". Bhupati's reaction to this is a complex one; one of astonishment, shock and embarrassment, at being made aware of his wife's talent by his drunk friends. For a second he doesn't know what to think, and it is stupendously conveyed.

For a film so delicately balanced and executed, the denouement, specifically when Charu breaks down into an unrealistic monologue, "Why did you leave me Amal?" conveniently timed, just as Bhupati happens to be at the door is a tad clumsy, contrived to deliver him the double blow and eventually reach the broken nest, tragic freeze frame.  It feels like a cop-out, and an obvious writing deficiency. There could have been other well thought out ways to make him aware of the fact that Charu loved Amal. Also, one wishes the line delivery of Shailen Mukherjee was less affected and artificial, especially when he speaks in English. 

Amal fleeing overnight because of Umapada's  (Shyamal Ghoshal) betrayal is a bit abrupt as well. Why not stay around and offer his cousin some moral support instead? While Charu's feelings for Amal are quite explicitly exhibited, Amal is never shown reciprocating to that extent, hence it seems a bit of a stretch for him to act so impulsively and clear out fearing another betrayal.

Lilting music, great cinematography, great writing, carefully executed mise en scène and an extraordinarily splendid performance by Madhabi Mukherjee make the film.

Score: 8/10

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Fifth Seal (1976)

Ever heard one of those 'X walks into a bar' jokes? Hungarian filmmaker Zoltán Fábri's "The Fifth Seal" (1976) certainly reminded of one, for it begins with such a premise. However, the film and the subject it tackles are hardly a laughing matter, despite an occasional garnishing of some wry humour, sometimes extending to full blown hilarity. Fábri's film exposes an inherently disturbing truth about all of us by throwing a variant of a "What would you do?" type of question, one that will have you struggling for an answer, much like the baffled characters in this powerful film.

It is a war-torn environment in 1940s Hungary and an unnamed fascist regime is gradually taking control of the country. Five men of different occupations sit across a table in a local bar, drinking and conversing about several things. Despite the violent atmosphere outside, the men try to make merry and have a good time but a lot of their conversation, not surprisingly, revolves around the tense state of affairs and the shape of things to come. Amid fears of air-raid warnings, the men engage in interesting discussions that focus on the very foundations of war and dictatorship, stemming from differing ideologies and from an individual point of view.

In such a scenario, one of the men, Gyuricza Miklós (Lajos Öze), (curiously referred to as Mr. Auricular in the English translated subtitles) asks a hypothetical question, strictly from an individual perspective, that shatters everyone's composure, rattles their ethical beliefs, and puts them in a tough spot. The answer is seemingly simple, but they slowly realize, that like life itself, there are no easy answers to everything.

"The Fifth Seal" plays out like a claustrophobic chamber piece, with the action mostly confined to the dimly lit bar, barring a couple of very important sequences during which it shifts elsewhere. With the way the men assertively engage in argumentative dialog, one is instantly reminded of Sidney Lumet's 1957 masterpiece, "12 Angry Men". The prevailing atmosphere of violence and dread is never shown on screen and merely suggested most effectively by way of sounds of carnage outside, leaving the visuals to our imagination, a device often used by Hitchcock.

The exchange between the characters is extremely thought-provoking, compelling the viewer to look at life from diverse lenses, making their reactions wholly relatable. The conversations and subsequent situations may seem slightly contrived to push the narrative arc forward or make specific points, but they accurately reflect the helplessness and the real struggles faced by the common man in the face of an oppressive regime with their very humanity put to the test.

Pertinent questions regarding morality and conscience are raised and weighed against pragmatism and the need to survive, maybe not for the self, but for some others who they may be responsible for. The discussion points put forth are essentially from the perspective of both, the ruler and the ruled, the oppressor and the oppressed, their respective roles as members of a society, contrasted against their roles as altruistic human beings looking for salvation.

Fábri's film is a complex one, however, and doesn't keep things limited to this debate. It covers other ground related to the thematic core, and explores down to the specifics, given these characters' family backgrounds and individualities. With unanticipated twists and turns in the narrative, viewer expectation and the ability to judge is constantly toyed with, and the distinction between right and wrong is further blurred, almost obliterating the absolute nature of it, and providing a very convincing angle of subjective morality.

We are given a brief look at the individual lives of these characters, thereby making us think again and at times take back our initial opinions about some of them. Most noteworthy are the stories of Mr. Kovacs (Sándor Horváth) and Gyuricza himself. The part in which Kovacs loses sleep over the seed planted by Gyuricza's query and keeps harping about it, plays out to hilarious effect, reminding of Ruben Östlund's excellent "Force Majeure" (2014). However, his final decision, while it seems to belie expectations on the surface, doesn't seem all that far-fetched. The most intriguing story is that of Gyuricza, however. A close look at his life makes us exonerate him, despite his most cynical attitude, and seemingly unsavoury decisions in some trying moments further in the film.

Simple examples are provided to explain in a very cogent manner, as to how wars really start, and at some point the ability to reason is lost and proving oneself right becomes the sole purpose of any conflict. One of the highlights in "The Fifth Seal" is the shocking but very enlightening conversation between one of the Fascist officers and a mysterious individual (Zoltán Latinovits), dressed in civilian attire, who appears to be his leader and mentor. His chilling words dwell on the very backbone of autocracy, and a key to mass psychological manipulation that helps a fascist regime thrive and flourish. Crushing a man's spirit and taking away his self respect is enough to crush a whole society.

"The Fifth Seal" is a well-acted, expertly directed masterpiece of Hungarian cinema, a fascinating film that hits hard and leaves us with plenty to think about.

Score: 10/10

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Mother Joan Of The Angels (1961)

"Maybe there are no demons. It's only a lack of angels."

France, in the 17th century, witnessed one of the worst atrocities perpetrated by humankind. A popular and openly libertine priest, Father Urbain Grandier of Loudun, known for his philandering ways, was accused of witchcraft and commerce with the Devil. A group of Ursuline nuns, led by the Mother Superior, Jeanne of the Angels, claimed to have been possessed by demons, owing to being seduced and corrupted by Grandier, who was ultimately convicted, tortured and burned alive at the stake. Legend has it that the whole incident was purportedly an organized witch-hunt, to oust the unorthodox priest, with Mother Jeanne's personal grudge against Grandier and an irrefutable evidence of possession, providing a strong advantage.

This story has been the subject of various literary works and plays, also adapted by English filmmaker Ken Russell in his controversial masterpiece, "The Devils" (1971). Polish filmmaker Jerzy Kawalerowicz's "Mother Joan Of The Angels" (1961), although released ten years earlier, is somewhat of a quasi-sequel to Russell's film. Albeit with character names slightly altered, Kawalerowicz's film is loosely based on events following Grandier's execution.

The nuns at the notorious convent are still supposedly under the influence of the demons, exhibiting hysterical traits, and spitting blasphemous ramblings. With exorcisms already in progress, although with little success, another priest, a specialist, Father Józef Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit) is called upon to take up the challenging task. Following interactions with the curious local folk, including patrons of a nearby inn, the nuns, and more importantly, a startling face-off with Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka), Father Suryn finds himself grappling with his own faith, conflicted by the questionable veracity of Mother Joan's claims, and tormented by his own undeniable attraction to Mother Joan.

Despite directly following the events in Russell's film, "Mother Joan Of The Angels" is a far subtler version in contrast to "The Devils". While the brazen, scandalous depiction of the madness and hysteria of Russell's film is missing here, Kawalerowicz's fairly restrained approach renders a darker and more meditative tone to the proceedings, and what results is a film with a distinctively bleak, tense atmosphere, and aptly so. It is akin to an eerie calm following a deadly storm, with its desolate surroundings and the burnt remains of a carnage serving as horrific reminders of a black chapter in the history of the town; its baffled inhabitants haunted by the ghosts of a terrible episode, still questioning the truth about what really happened.

Without being too unabashed about it, Kawalerowicz manages to shrewdly attack and expose the hypocrisy of organized religion with masterful writing of scenes, comprising of philosophical musings, riveting confrontations and intelligently composed, symbolically heavy imagery. Meticulously in control, and not swaying towards preachiness, Kawalerowicz offers plenty to chew on about the tenets of orthodox religious practices.

Having very human, amorous feelings of desire and carnal needs is a sin, and a work of the devil, they say. So is it that, in a way, God created the Devil, for apparently it is His teachings that direct followers to repress their natural desires? What sort of a religion asks a human to stop being human? Some individuals devoting themselves to serve God are disallowed from having simple human, sensual feelings, and if they do, they are said to be possessed by an evil force!

And what about the unspeakable evil unleashed upon the priest who was burned, by these servants of God? A close look at the circumstances leading to the Loudun possessions do reveal that the priest was burned at the stake as a result of insane jealousy of one woman, an evil that was born out of repressed, unrequited desire, perhaps.

One of the film's highlights is a powerful conversation between Father Suryn and a Rabbi, also played by Mieczyslaw Voit, symbolically incorporating the theme of duality, perhaps hinting at the ambivalence of religious teachings and at the same time conveying that essentially all religion is the same and yet at conflict within or with each other. A near delirious Suryn addressing himself in the mirror, believing to have been possessed, also hints at the two-faced nature of man-made religion. It is interesting that the first frame of the film shows Father Suryn lying face down on the ground and filmed in an angle that makes his profile resemble an inverted cross.

With the theme of demonic possessions and exorcism, the horror quotient is not far behind and the sequences of the ritual are terrifying to say the least. But the first meeting between Mother Joan and Father Suryn almost rivals it in that department and ends with a chilling note while still retaining the ambiguity surrounding the existence of a supernatural force.

The performances are superlative. Mieczyslaw Voit portrays his crisis of faith and self-doubt with an earnestness that rivals Gunnar Björnstrand's performance in Bergman's masterpiece, "Winter Light" (1963). Lucyna Winnicka embodies Mother Joan with an impeccably versatile performance, although for someone who has seen Vanessa Redgrave's mind-blowing freaky hunch-back act in "The Devils", this reviewer finds himself preferring that by a significant margin.

A recurring motif in the film is of the ringing church bells, for those who are lost on their journeys. Beyond the literal purpose of the bell is some potent symbolism that comes alive in the very final shot of the film, with the close-up of the ringing bell against the sound of Mother Joan and spurned Sister Malgorzata (Anna Ciepielewska) sobbing together. This haunting audiovisual juxtaposition speaks volumes of how these poor souls feel lost in their respective emotional journeys and misfortunes, brought about by the beliefs they embraced and eventually imposed upon them in the ruthless world of organized religion in a male-dominated, Godless universe.

Score: 9/10