Sunday, 19 May 2019

Not Reconciled [1965]

Cinéastes agree that there’s no easy entry point into the formally rigorous world of the filmmaking duo of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. And, as it turned out, I probably chose one that was dense, narratively complex and stylistically radical even by their avant-garde standards. In his renowned novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine, German writer Heinrich Böll had delivered, through the members of a multi-generational family, a powerful indictment against the country’s tryst with Nazism leading to and during WWII. Straub-Huillet, with Not Reconciled (or, Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules), made a fragmented, elliptical, minimalist and free-flowing adaptation of Böll; hence, its comprehensibility is further complicated if one hasn’t read the source novel. Comprising of short scenes which transitioned at a rapid pace both spatially and temporally (albeit, interestingly, in sharp contrast to the “speed” within each scene), filled with complex flashbacks which were oftentimes not discernible from the “present”, and heavy on dialogues (the quality of subs, therefore, is critical), it attempted a lacerating snapshot of a post-War Germany which continues to be filled with former Nazi functionaries and sympathizers, and thus, in turn a look into the rise of fascism not so long back in the country’s past. The film’s ambiguous central protagonist Robert Fähmel (Henning Harmssen), his elderly father Heinrich (Heinrich Hargesheimer), his garrulous and headstrong mother, a young bellhop with whom he holds monologues while playing billiards, his former acquaintances (an exiled left-wing activist and a former Nazi enforcer), etc. provided for an often impenetrable yet strangely hypnotic deconstruction on the culture of rabid militarization, blind obedience and patriotic sacrifice which has continued to spawn fascist regimes across countries and eras.

Director: Jean-Marie Straub
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Avant-Garde
Language: Germany
Country: Germany

Friday, 17 May 2019

Ida [2013]

With the stark, austere, minimalist Ida, and the dazzling, audacious, smoldering Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski crafted impeccably beautiful back-to-back gems charged with historical and political overtones, even if diametrically contrasting in terms of style and scope. Through its intensely focused approach, Ida (set in 1960s Poland) powerfully touched upon the ugly ghosts from the country’s Nazi-era past, and how some scars are impossible to heal even if they get muted over time. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young nun living a life of self-denial in a Catholic convent, is advised to visit her maternal aunt who she’s never met, before taking her vows. Thus she visits Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a hard-drinking, chain-smoking and unapologetically promiscuous judge and former member of Polish Communist Resistance during WWII, who informs Anna that her real name is Ida, she’s actually a Jew and her parents were murdered during the German occupation. And so, these two disparate ladies, connected by a shared past, embark on an odyssey to locate the graves of Ida’s parents, and perhaps Wanda’s infant son too. Over the course of their road trip through the bleak Polish landscape, they meet a farmer secretly carrying skeletons from the past, and also a young saxophonist who gets Ida’s sensuality stirred. In the process, despite their enormous differences – Ida’s opacity and faith vis-à-vis Wanda’s volatility and lack thereof – they start understanding one another, while also being left so deeply ruffled that they eventually respond in shockingly unexpected ways. Kulesza gave an especially stunning performance as the cynical and disillusioned Wanda in this moody, ambiguous, implosive and deceptively complex film – brilliantly photographed in striking B/W – on identity and the strive for reconciliations (historical, political, familial, personal).

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Religious Drama/Road Movie
Language: Polish
Country: Poland

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Jonaki [2018]

Aditya Sengupta, in his deftly evocative debut feature Asha Jaoar Majhe which he'd composed sans any onscreen dialogues, displayed his bent towards eschewing conventional narrative forms. And with his marvelous sophomore work, Jonaki, he’s further expanded on his formal disposition by intermingling fragmented memories, broken dreams, desires and bleak realities, through visual storytelling, into a haunting montage. The result was a muted, atmospheric and gorgeously beautiful sepia-toned work that was distinctively Tarkovskian; ironically though, as revealed by the director in an interview, the only film by the Soviet giant that he’s seen is Ivan’s Childhood, and not, say, The Mirror or Solaris that this was stylistically or thematically closer to. The film portrayed, in the form of a free-flowing series of loosely connected dream sequences, the recollections and reminiscences of the titular lady Jonaki (in a daring turn by Lolita Chatterjee), of indeterminate but decidedly extremely advanced age, currently on her deathbed – the enormous mansion where she grew up which, like her brittle and decayed existence, is now a dank, crumbling and dilapidated building comprising of broken railings, dust-filled rooms, collapsing ceilings, empty courtyards and moss-covered porches; her soft-spoken father (Sumanto Chattopadhyay) obsessed with botany and oblivious to his growing tumour; her loving but dogmatic mother (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee) in increasing emotional stress; her doomed and forbidden affair as a teenager with a Christian guy (Jim Sarbh); her lonely and unhappy marriage to a much older businessman. As this magnificently composed and photographed dreamscape progresses, we also witness, in a rare peek into the present, her former lover, who’s now an old man (Burjor Patel), hoping for one final rendezvous over oranges, which is bound to end in heartbreak.

Director: Aditya Vikram Sengupta
Genre: Drama/Surrealist Drama/Romantic Drama
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Vagabond (Sans Toit ni Loi) [1985]

Agnès Varda made compelling use of two interesting formal and narrative choices while making her gripping and enigmatic film Vagabond. Its theme was seeped in neorealism (no wonder, she had begun her career La Pointe Courte), and that was combined with the stylistic choice of infusing documentary elements into narrative fiction (documentary filmmaking, after all, was an integral part of her oeuvre). A stark, distressing and yet also a quietly poignant film, it starts with the discovery of the dead body of a young woman in the French countryside. Thereafter, using a technique made legendary in movies ranging from Citizen Kane to Rashomon, her life – Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), an aimless, seemingly apathetic and compulsively solitary drifter, with no known personal or familial background except, perhaps, that she probably changed her identity to escape a dreary, bourgeois past – leading to her death, is reconstructed from witness accounts of those who met or encountered her. And thus, this tough yet vulnerable, carefree but forever escaping, emotionally complex though largely taciturn, defiantly non-conformist vagabond is brought to life through memories and faux-interviews of this disparate group of people – truck drivers, construction workers, domestic servants, farmers, bourgeoisie, money-chasers, half-blind old women, nuns, etc. She’s treated with contempt and disdain by most, and faces casual hostility, sexist stereotyping and even sexual violence along the way, but she keeps brushing them off in her obsessive quest to constantly move on; however, that said, she experiences unexpected empathy and unlikely camaraderie as well. Varda’s clinical portrayal, suffused with a bleak world-view and feminist commentaries, and Bonnaire’s superlative performance as the drifting outsider, made this not just a darn interesting work, but an important one as well.

Director: Agnes Varda
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Road Movie
Language: French
Country: France

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Life Is a Miracle [2004]

Satirists over the years have often made use of a powerful formula, viz. “comedy equals tragedy plus time”. Yugoslavian auteur Emir Kusturica – whose films have come to be associated with a distinctive stylistic signature – too made incredible use of that maxim in his unapologetically and gloriously zany, boisterous, madcap, anarchistic, absurdist and spectacularly over-the-top film Life is a Miracle. And, through this madness, chaos and farce, he created a fabulous anti-war film both satirizing and lamenting on human lunacy, opportunism and apathy that led to a string of unimaginably bloody wars engulfing, in particular, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, and that, in turn, led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia. It tells the story of Luka (Slavko Stimac), an apolitical engineer who’s shifted from Belgrade to a nameless village with his buxom, mentally unstable, opera-singing wife Jadranka (Vesna Trivalic) and his football-crazed son Milos (Vuk Kostic), in order to build a railway tunnel which he’s so obsessed with that he’s completely oblivious of the impending Bosnian War – and remains so even though his son is conscripted, his wife runs away and the war reaches his doorstep; the realization that the world around him is indeed collapsing, and the ensuing political awakening, finally happens when he starts falling in love with the beautiful and vulnerable Sabaha (Natasa Solak), a Bosnian Muslim entrusted to him as a political hostage. The rollicking tragicomic gem, accompanied by a melancholic score, is populated with surrealistic and darkly humorous set-pieces – a sad and suicidal donkey, a gaggling postman (Aleksandar Berček) hoping to play a game of chess amidst the rampaging hostilities, a free-for-all football match, a night of loony drunken revelry, a hilarious concert to the warmongers, etc.

Director: Emir Kusturical
Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Political Satire/War Film/ Romantic Comedy
Language: Serbian
Country: Serbia

Friday, 3 May 2019

Missing [1982]

Portrayal of governmental lies, overreach, oppression, abuse of power and corruption across eras and geographies was a central tenet in Cost-Gavras’ oeuvre, best known for his tour de force political thriller Z. Missing – a tense, compelling and slow-burning adaptation of the eponymous non-fiction book by Thomas Hauser, and set at the epochal moment of the violent coup d'état led by Pinochet that deposed the democratically elected government of hugely popular Socialist leader Salvador Allende and established a fascist junta in its place – was a striking denunciation of American history of engineering such bloody events across Latin America; no wonder, the film was forced out of the US market for over 2 decades. However, it was the human story that made it even more gratifying – ensuring a palpable emotional wallop through a gradual upping of the tension, a pitch-perfect balance between simmering anger and its dramatic expression, and excellent performances led by a truly terrific Jack Lemmon and ably complemented by Sissy Spacek. The story followed the mysterious disappearance of a young American bohemian (John Shea) for his involvement in left-wing politics and for having stumbled upon the information about direct American intervention through his habit of asking questions, and the dogged and frantic search for his whereabouts by his staunchly conservative father (Lemmon) and his non-conformist wife (Spacek). The marvelous contrast between the father and daughter-in-law, albeit bound by a common cause, made the generational conflict an interesting theme, as it did the ensuing political awakening in the old man as he gets to know how the diplomats and bureaucrats, by facilitating a brutal military dictatorship in order to protect “American interests”, led to innumerable deaths, detentions and disappearances.

Director: Costa-Gavras
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Docudrama
Language: English/Spanish
Country: US