Tuesday, 23 February 2021

The Basilisks [1963]

 Lina Wertmüller’s intriguing neorealist debut The Basilisks was infused with both playfulness and bitterness, and the juxtaposition of these two contrasting tones made this a work of interesting dichotomies that pervaded through its length – be it in its form, viz. interplay between vérité filmmaking and poetic realism; its theme, viz. the wish and allure to escape from the mundane vis-à-vis the inability and even unwillingness to truly leave; and its political context, viz. the cohabitation of post-fascist Italy and earlier feudal lifestyles. These alternative aspects were especially manifested by the film’s setting in southern Italy, with its curious tussle between the winds of changes brought in by the then climate and yet steadfastly holding on to disappearing mores and customs; and more specifically the town of Palazzo San Gervasio, which, with its striking medieval edifice, ragged stone structures, community existence and sleepy flow, seemed to be stuck somewhere indeterminate between desolation and old-world charm. The lazily paced tale – gently laced with existential ennui and aimlessness – was aptly contrapunted by its three drifting friends, viz. the young and dreamy Antonio (Antonio Petruzzi) who’s perpetually in conflct with his thrifty father who represents the older order; the equally laidback Francesco (Stefano Satta Flores) who spends his days skirtchasing and dabbling in on-off involvement in local antifascist politics; and the slightly older and deadpan Sergio (Sergio Ferranino). At times remiscent of I Vitelloni in its general flavour – Wertmüller, interestingly, assisted Fellini in 8 ½ – it comprised of fine B/W photography, elegiac voiceover and an idiosyncratic flavour; if morning shows the day, this sure did, even if it felt tad unassuming, incoherent and rough in the edges to be considered a major work.

 

 


 

 

Director: Lina Wertmuller

Genre: Drama/Buddy Film

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Cathy Come Home [1966]

 While cinema has often defiantly and daringly participated in civil rights activism – covering diverse political topics, portraying complex social scenarios and asking difficult questions to power – can they really evoke such public uproar as to propel policy discussions and invoke tangible affirmative changes? Cathy Come Home – the landmark British drama that Ken Loach made for BBC Television as part of the anthology series The Wednesday Play, prior to transitioning to the big screen – was amongst that rare exception. Made on the subject of homelessness – and how helpless individuals are blamed for their poverty, misery and breakdown, instead of rightfully shifting responsibility to uncaring social institutions, negligent political structures, callous government officials and self-serving landlords – this gritty film managed to spark public outcry, debates and campaigns, and initiated some semblance of social changes too. Shot in granny, low-key B/W and accompanied by a voiceover contextualizing Britain’s housing crisis, this bleak and harrowing tale – and one that’s bound to make one both sad and angry in equal measures – was hinged around Cathy (Carol White), a working-class girl, whose life devolves from carefree joy to crushing tragedy over the film’s length. It began on a cheerful note when she and Reg (Ray Brooks) get married, have kids and book a flat in London. A vicious cycle of wrenching setbacks, however, is set in motion when Reg loses his job as a lorry driver upon sustaining an injury; as part of her downward spiral she first loses her home and security, then her hopes and dreams, and finally her dignity and sense of being – thus not just being dragged to the very brink of her existence, but pushed off the edges too.

 

 


 

 

 

Director: Ken Loach

Genre: Drama/Kitchen Sink Drama/Social Drama/Marriage Drama/TV Movie

Language: English

Country: UK

Thursday, 18 February 2021

John & Jane [2005]

 One of India’s most ubiquitous modern-day contributions to world economy – pejoratively speaking, of course – might just be white-collar sweatshops, viz. 24/7 outsourced call centers. There, college-educated, English-speaking youngsters slog for a pittance, and often at the oddest of hours, for jobs that’re far more profitable to relocate from the US to the other side of the globe; and, ironically, they must also impersonate Americans – by taking false names and imbibing fake accents – and display artificial geniality even while facing bad behavior, as part of the standard operating procedure. In his gently observational documentary and debut feature John & Jane – made 6 years before the dazzling B-movie homage Miss Lovely – Ashim Ahluwalia provided a wry and at times captivating peek into this cloistered world driven by efficiency, targets, fakery and relentless salesmanship. The filmmaker weaved his narrative through short vignettes focusing on six young women and men employed in this sector – the cynical, lively “Glenn”; the effervescent, dance-loving “Sydney”; the hyper-optimistic “Osmond” brainwashed by the “American Dream”; the homely “Nicki”; the upbeat “Naomi”; and “Nicholas”, who gets only a brief window with his wife at a deserted McDonald’s over breakfast, due to their contrasting shifts, reminded me of the delightful Bengali film Asha Jaoar Majhe. And their stories were alternated with shots of jam-packed executives making desperate sales pitches to disinterested customers in the US or calming frayed nerves of agitated callers, along with their training on the American way of life that bordered on crass propaganda. Ahluwalia, interestingly, largely avoided judgemental standpoints or pointed tones, which made it a sedate, low-key affair that was affecting if not incisive, while also blurring the lines between straight-up documentation and performative elements.

 

 


 

 

 

Director: Ashim Ahluwalia

Genre: Documentary

Language: English

Country: India

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Je Tu Il Elle [1974]

 Existential ennui, detachment, disaffection and alienation were the dominant themes in Je Tu Il Elle – Chantal Akerman had made a few shorts and a couple of feature-length films prior to this, but this arguably was her breakthrough work – and they were captured with the kind of stark, low-key, understated ambiguity, formal rigour and boldly experimental touch that would define her oeuvre. That she was just 23-year old then – freshly back from New York where she experienced a diverse set of avant garde filmmakers – made this quietly defiant exploration of feminist subjectivity, neurosis and sexuality that much more startling. The film – shot in inky, grainy B/W – is structured into three acts through which the four components of its title are presented. In the first act we see Julie (played with formidable courage by Akerman herself) – the title’s “Je” – confining herself in a small apartment for a few days where she arranges the furniture, attempts to write a rambling letter to someone – potentially the title’s “Tu” – obsessively gorges on sugar, and even sheds her inhibitions by disrobing herself. In the middle act, she moves out of the place and takes a ride with a long-distance trucker (Niels Arestrup) – the title’s “Il” – who opens up about his family and infidelity upon being provided a quick, impassive gratification by her. And, in the film’s final act where the proceedings once again shift to indoors, she has an unplanned night halt at the place of a young woman – the title’s “Elle” – who, as it becomes gradually evident, is a former lover; and, in the daring, extended and strikingly de-sexualized climax, they engage in passionate love-making before Julie must again silently move on to somewhere else.

 

 


 

 

 

Director: Chantal Akerman

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Road Movie/Experimental Film

Language: French

Country: Belgium

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Documenteur [1981]

 Made back-to-back during her second stint in California – while on a temporary hiatus from Demy – Documenteur made for an interesting double bill with Mur Murs. On one hand, they couldn’t be further apart formally, given that the latter was a documentary with a broad scope while the former was a tightly-knit family drama. On the other hand, however, one would discern striking underlying connecting threads – in their essayistic styles, feminist and underdog subtexts with empathy for those existing outside the mainstream, and in how Varda’s interest lay resolutely outside the glitzy, touristy sides of Los Angeles. On the latter aspect, one can’t help but be captivated by how so beautifully and delicately she explored diverse shades and subaltern flavours of LA in these two films despite being a visitor; though, that said, she certainly had extraordinary company in terms of outsiders (Akerman, Wenders, Kiarostami, Buñuel, Polanski et al) who’ve succeeded in irresistibly capturing diverse facets about a place despite hailing from elsewhere. This semi-autobiographical reflection by her was centered on a mother-son pair – Emilie (played by Sabine Mamou, the editor of Mur Murs), a recently divorced single-mom of French origin, and her kid son Martin (played by Varda’s real-life son Mathieu Demy) – living a transient, isolated and working-class existence in the city’s blue-collar neighbourhood. Though independent and self-sufficient – she’s employed in a clerical job overlooking the sea and shares a loving relationship with her perceptive son – familial estrangement formed a key motif, and this manifested through her recurring sexual fantasies and her son’s enquires about his invisible dad. Mamou gave a low-key but boldly daring turn, and vignettes from their lives were interspersed with melancholic, meditative monologues by Varda.

 

 


 

 

 

Director: Agnes Varda

Genre: Drama/Family Drama

Language: French/English

Country: France