Tuesday 28 May 2019

Subarnarekha (The Golden Thread) [1965]

Ritwik Ghatak was forever haunted by the memories of the 1947 Partition; that, combined with his defiant Marxist lens, meant that the uprooted, the displaced and the dispossessed formed a recurring motif in his filmography. His ‘Partition Trilogy’ comprised of three radically and ferociously beautiful masterpieces, viz. Meghe Dhaka Tara, Komal Gandhar and Subarnarekha, and the latter remains the most unforgettable of the lot. Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) and Haraprasad (Bijon Bhattacharya, a doyen of left-bank Bengali theatre), refugees from the erstwhile East Bengal, join hands to rehabilitate a refugee camp in Calcutta; however, to his friend’s utter dejection, Ishwar takes up a conventional job (courtesy a schoolmate, a typically philistine petit-bourgeois businessman) and, along with his kid sister Sita (Indrani Chakraborty), relocates to a remote village on the banks of the Subarnarekha river; he also takes along the orphaned Abhiram who, unbeknownst to Ishwar, belongs to a lower caste. His tranquil, secured life, years later, takes a debilitating hit when the adult Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee) defies his commands, borne out of selfishness and prejudice, and elopes with Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya). And it gets shattered a few years later when, upon getting reconnected on a fateful night with the now-irrevocably disillusioned Haraprasad and after a night of uncharacteristic revelry – captured with Felliniesque dash – he has a tragic chance encounter with Sita. Ghatak was mesmeric in his infusion of harsh realism and melodramatic bursts while portraying the elusive quest for home and thus roots, and the accompanying loss of innocence and idealism; that, along with Ustad Bahadur Khan’s stirring Classical score, and incredible cinematographic compositions – the abandoned airstrip sequence was especially memorable – made this a lacerating, haunting and brutally poetic cinematic experience.

p.s. This is a revisit. My earlier review can be found here.

Director: Ritwik Ghatak
Genre: Drama/Social Drama/Family Drama
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Saturday 25 May 2019

Barbara [2012]

Barbara, the opening act in Petzold’s ‘Love in the Times of Oppressed Systems’ trilogy – which also comprised of Phoenix and Transit – is a simmering and slow-burning love story imbued with powerful dimensions courtesy its political backdrop. The deliberate pacing and strong undercurrents of paranoia, consequently, gave this brilliant character study the flavour of a tense political thriller. Set in 1980s DDR, the tale unfolds in a small clinic in a remote border town, where the taciturn and enigmatic Barbara (in a towering central performance by Nina Hoss), a doctor once associated with Charité, has been banished to from Berlin for some unspecified political transgressions. Despite consciously refraining from socializing with anyone, she nevertheless becomes the focus of attention for two men – she catches the fancy of chief physician Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), who could be a kindly man or an informant or both, and who clearly wants to befriend the striking but aloof Barbara; the local Stasi official Klaus (Rainer Bock), on the other hand, seems preoccupied with regularly intruding into her apartment to search her belongings, which, surprisingly, comprise of contraband West German items. As is eventually revealed, she has a secret lover – he smuggles gifts for her from across the border, her seemingly frigid demeanour transitions into one of unbridled passion in his presence, and he’s planning to help her illegally emigrate. However, as her relationship with Andre eventually starts thawing, and she also starts feeling responsible for a young pregnant girl afflicted with meningitis, we realize the surprisingly emotional core of this aesthetically rigorous, lean, nuanced and controlled film, where everyone, including the Stasi man, evolves into magnificently layered characters vis-à-vis what they initially appeared to be.

Director: Christian Petzold
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Political Drama/Romantic Drama
Language: German
Country: Germany

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