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