Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Landscape In The Mist (1988)

"In the beginning, was the darkness….and then there was light!"

For Voula (Tania Palaiologou), a girl approaching her teens and her little brother Alexandros (Michalis Zeke), about half her age, this profound snippet from the Genesis that she calls a bed-time story, serves as the ultimate mantra of hope and optimism, as the siblings embark on their rather unreasonable and perilous cross-country journey to reach their father! All they know from their mother (who we never seen on screen) is that he resides somewhere in Germany.

The naive children give little thought to it and decide to catch a train to Germany, never once suspecting that their mother, embarrassed from their constant questioning might just have fabricated the whole father story to withhold their illegitimacy from them. However, they believe that eventually there will be light, and the prospect of finding their father becomes a reason to carry out the journey, a reason to go on; a reason to break out of their comfort zone and step out into a world unknown.

Greek master Theodoros Angelopoulos' "Landscape In The Mist" (1988) may be described on some sites as a road movie centering around two children, but it would be a sin to reduce something so phenomenal, to something so concise and limited. Angelopoulos' film is a cinematic masterpiece that is beyond classification.

Even though it primarily chronicles the journey, as seen through the eyes of these children, "Landscape in the Mist" transcends from the literal to the lyrical in showcasing a journey that is not only physical but also spiritual. For the kids, it is an odyssey that, apart from covering physical distances,also traverses emotional heights, serving as an extraordinary rite of passage, a coming of age.

While the rather risky expedition the kids undertake provides the narrative edge to keep the viewer hooked, Angelopoulos packs in a lot of thematic material to ponder on along the way. "Landscape in the Mist" talks of a quest that is universal to all of mankind; a long, unpredictable voyage into the unknown, or a seemingly never-ending existential struggle to attain a far-reaching, unattainable goal. Fate, destiny, and a sense of purpose to life are predominant themes of the film.

As they travel from place to place, board trains, get evicted for lack of tickets, we hear Voula's voice-over narrating unwritten letters to her father, which sometimes spell hope and enthusiasm and at other times, express fatigue and the desire to give up their quest. And yet, something keeps them going, despite the apathy shown by an uncle and his disheartening comments about their father's existence.

The kids run into a kind soul, a young Orestes (Stratos Tzortzoglou) who works with the Travelling Players (a reference to Angelopoulos' 1975 film). They are a theater troupe, now reduced to wandering about, in search of audiences and a theater to perform their beloved play, "Golfo, the Shepherdess". For these artists, performing the play is their sense of purpose in life, but sadly their prospects are dwindling. They are steadfast however, and keep on, for they believe that theater is their only destiny.

Orestes himself struggles with an uncertain future and his unproductive journey thus far. "I'm a snail slithering away into nothingness", he says, for the time would soon come to end his association with the troupe and the kids in order to go into an inevitable Military service. He dreads this future in the army and fears being left to perish. And yet, his purpose in the story inadvertently becomes that of a protector for the kids, a guardian angel of sorts. Then could Military service actually be his vocation, his calling, a destiny chosen for him, for he is the one who protects?

A gifted filmmaker that Angelopoulos is, he manages to strike an unusual balance between the cold, distant and calculated and the melancholic and emotionally sublime. Slow, long takes dominate with accompanying silences, allowing the viewer to rest with every fantastic, mist-laden frame that lingers on screen generously, making a powerful impact. Sometimes the silence is broken to give way to a cathartic breakdown, courtesy the extremely moving score by Eleni Karaindrou.

The oft-mentioned dying horse/wedding scene is only one instance of the powerful imagery that contains the film's universe within it. One can't overlook that almost prophetic mad rambling of the senile old woman in the police station who keeps repeating "He tied the rope…"! It cannot be a coincidence that soon after, we see a dying horse tied to a rope being dragged on the street.

The snowfall and its transfixed audience staring at the sky and the first sighting of the traveling players emerging from a corner, to eventually vanish in an eerily empty town street, replete with an abandoned, scattered vegetable cart, are sequences of unmatched brilliance. They render a surreal, mystical quality to the film's universe, thereby allowing the viewer to identify with Angelopoulos' world, compelling us to not rule out the possibility of anything unreal happening in it!

There are curiously placed, significant scenes of symbolic importance strewn across the film, accurately driving home the themes of the film. An unsuspecting chicken walks into an unknown territory as onlookers quietly watch it. It treads its steps with equal confidence and caution, and yet it is unaware of the danger that lies ahead. Within moments, a man grabs it and takes it away, presumably to make a meal out it. This situation directly mirrors those of the kids, especially Voula who is unaware of the risk she has taken, venturing out alone into the big bad world, solely responsible for the safety of herself and her brother. She walks into the trap of the wolf, the pedophilic truck driver, leading to a very unfortunate means to a sexual awakening.

It's only a matter of time before this pubescent girl, on the brink of adulthood, develops quiet feelings for the handsome Orestes, her sudden and tragic loss of innocence notwithstanding. Orestes notices this in her eyes when he asks her for that dance, and seems to back away. Theirs is an impossible love. It doesn't have a future. The spiral staircase leading to nowhere that stands next to them in this very scene, speaks volumes of the inner conflicts of Orestes and Voula regarding their future, as well as a relationship that isn't meant to be.

The three young souls make up the foundation of the film, and the film is about their journey, their destiny. A giant hand rises from the waters in one of the greatest scenes ever in the history of cinema, and soars above them, suspended from a helicopter, as some ubiquitous cyclists in yellow raincoats (who also appear in Angelopoulos' "Eternity and a Day" (1998), ten years later!) look on. Is it the hand of fate, or the hand of God? Are the yellow raincoats actually angels, overlooking their activity?

If the hypnotic moments leading to the jaw-dropping conclusion of "Landscape in the Mist", capable of making one skip a beat with their sheer leap-out magnificence and a realization of a prophetic revelation, are anything to go by, then it wouldn't be a stretch at all.

Score: 10/10

Friday, March 4, 2016

As Long As You've Got Your Health (1966)

Pierre Étaix, in collaboration with Jean-Claude Carrière, presents in the so-called An Entertainment in Four Acts, an uproariously funny worldview of the modern society. Although made in the 60s, "As Long As You've Got Your Health" (1966), an anthology of four comic shorts, is as relevant today, as the time it was conceived.

All four shorts are loosely related in the way they serve as a biting commentary on the excesses of modernization, consumerism, urbanization and its associated effects on human life,  albeit exaggerated to absurd proportions for comedic effect.

In the first segment "Insomnia", Étaix sits with a vampire novel in bed. The sheer ingenuity on display is extraordinary in the way a simple activity like reading a book is turned into an extended visual gag. A tiny detail like even the transparent cover of a book manages to develop into a funny idea and you are left applauding with amazement as the material that Étaix's character reads, visually manifests into what looks like a silent era vampire film.

Actions repeat, or are sometimes seen upside down, in a visual translation of his handling of the book. The story in the novel unfolds and its reader gets increasingly unsettled, especially when he starts to imagine things. The effectiveness of fiction, the craze, the captivating power of this form of art, and the way in which we literally let a story become a part of our reality is illustrated with this subtly funny and clever segment.

Next up is the visit to "The Movies", a superb, well observed episode that satirizes every minute detail that is associated with the activity of going to the cinemas. The long queues, the robotic movements, audiences least interested in the film and only interested in sleeping or chatting or making out, while the genuine ones waiting to get a glimpse of the screen struggle with their seating arrangement; all familiar aspects covered in a riotous fashion.

The segment takes a wildly surreal turn when the commercials on the screen meld with the reality of the protagonist, as he finds himself visiting an entire family that's a living, breathing, commercial with advertising products in day to day conversations, being a part of their lifestyle! This is the most unnerving segment of the lot with some urgent and restless jazz score in the background, infused to accentuate the effect of a relentless assault of sales commercials in the visual media, enslaving the audiences, and nurturing the consumerist/materialist culture prevalent in society. This is perhaps the best segment of the four.

The third episode is the title segment that shifts focus to the aspect of rapid industrialization and urbanization, and its detrimental effects on the peace and well-being of an individual. And therefore, it opens on an almost apocalyptic but hilarious note that sees an entire city trembling from the vibrations of large machines doing road repair work, as cranes, cars, and other contraptions add to the noise and air pollution. Entire structures begin to feel the tremors, indoors as well as outdoors.

The fast life and lack of peace leads to an inevitable stress for mostly all individuals including a doctor himself who becomes a bundle of nerves even in the process of prescribing medicines! And in the midst of all this is yet another media/ad campaign urging everyone to keep smiling, no matter how bad the situation in the street on a regular, chaotic city day! The crowd complies with the smiling campaign, while the chaos continues, resulting in a wickedly funny situation of conflicting reactions; and yet very much the sad reality of our existence. Aren't we all left with no choice but to smile through all the mundane rigmaroles?

The final section shifts the action to a more serene atmosphere in the country, away from the city hustle and bustle. A hunter out to get some fowl in a farm land, inadvertently becomes a catalyst troublemaker for a couple of picnickers and a farmer trying to fix a fence around his field. The comedy in this segment may seem to be a tad repetitive or borderline silly, but its essence, the transportation to the country, is the real take-home.

Despite escaping from the troubles of the city, a city-bred couple can never find any real peace of mind, no matter how far away they go, and will always carry their problems with them, even literally, in the form of an overfilled bag with unnecessary urban items, something that more or less destroys the very purpose of a quiet country outing.

Lost for many years along with other Étaix films, the restored version of "As Long as You've Got Your Health" is technically well-accomplished, and meticulously structured. Pierre Étaix's comic timing is impeccable and the visual gags are mostly great and well executed, barring some exceptions that border on the juvenile. Each segment uses a visibly distinct colour tone.

A grainier, rougher picture texture is used for the vampire episode to give it a look of the silent era, against the more polished, sharper look rendered to the present day scenario. Some finer quirks add to the humour quotient much to our amusement. For example, one cannot help but smile when characters reappear across segments, especially the couple in the theater and their numerous but failed, interrupted attempts at making out!

Add "As Long As You’ve Got Your Health" to your watch-list. It is just above an hour full of visual entertainment that's sure to tickle your funny bone. A constant smile and occasional peals of laughter guaranteed!

Score: 8/10