Sunday 29 January 2023

Sud (South) [1999]

 Sud might well be one of the most violent films in Chantal Akerman’s oeuvre, even if there’s no display of blood in it; the violence in it, rather, hung in the air – in its defiant gaze, discomfiting silences and understated expressions – like brooding and ominous ether. Akerman, inspired by her love for the writings of Faulkner and Baldwin, had travelled to the American South to film a meditative reflection on the land. However, the gruesome lynching and murder of a black working-class man called James Byrd Jr. at the hands of three white supremacists – who flogged him, chained him to their pickup truck, and dragged him for around five kilometres before dumping his dismembered body in front of a church frequented by the town’s African-American community – which had occurred just before she was supposed to begin filming, radically shifted her attention, as she instead decided to set her documentary completely in Jasper, Texas where this horrific incident had occurred, in order to present a dismayed inquiry into the historicity, manifestation, perpetuation and immediate aftermaths of a hate crime such as this. The interviews with the Jasper’s residents covered a wide-ranging discourse – solemn ruminations on centuries of oppression, violence and hatred that African-Americans have faced; description of the specificities of this very public crime; the disquieting machinations of organized right-wing hate groups; the Sheriff’s casual downplaying of the crime’s racist motivations by attributing it to economic factors instead – and these were alternated with a sobering church service in Byrd’s memory; melancholic observations of the place’s oppressive milieu through silent long-takes; and ending the work with an incredibly unsettling tracking shot of the entire stretch through which Byrd was mercilessly dragged.

Director: Chantal Akerman

Genre: Documentary

Language: English

Country: Belgium

Wednesday 25 January 2023

The Leopard [1963]

 Luchino “Red Count” Visconti was defined by complex contradictions. On one hand he was an aristocrat, the son of a Duke and a Catholic, while on the other he was a Communist, member of the antifascist Resistance during Mussolini’s reign, a pathbreaker and a homosexual. He, in other words, represented the establishment and also defiantly rebelled against it. The Leopard – the lush, resplendent, sweeping, deeply ponderous tour de force and magnificently mounted 3-hour+ epic that’s considered as his greatest masterpiece – too beautifully evoked powerful opposing forces by portraying a proud nobleman’s reluctant acceptance of a new dawn upon realizing that “the times they’re a-changin’”, while lamenting the irrevocable passage of an era. The tumultuous and epochal transformations that Italy underwent during the Risorgimento around the 1860s was captured through Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancastar, in a display of commanding screen presence and majestic performance), an ageing Sicilian patriarch who epitomizes the old social order. Sensing that change is inevitable, he provides his blessings to his dashing nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) – who he loves like his own son – when he joins Garibaldi’s Red Shirts and thereafter pursues political ambitions, though he doesn’t formally join this change himself. Rapturously cinematographed by Giuseppe Rotunno in vivid colours and marvellously scored by Nino Rota, this melancholic meditation on radical social upheavals and generational transformations boasted of two extraordinary set-pieces – a spectacularly staged battle scene, and an absolutely unforgettable 45-minute ballroom sequence orchestrated through breathtaking mise-en-scène, fastidious art decor and enthralling choreography. In an interesting anecdote, Lancastar, Delon and Claudio Cardinale, who played Tancredi’s gorgeous nouveau riche fiancée, couldn’t communicate with each other on the sets, and acted throughout in English, French and Italian, respectively.

Director: Luchino Visconti

Genre: Drama/Historical Drama/Epic

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Sunday 22 January 2023

Rocco and His Brothers [1960]

 Luchino Visconti’s gritty, poetic and tragic jewel Rocco and His Brothers splendidly exhibited neorealist themes, sensibilities and aesthetics that the director had himself co-created and launched with Ossessione – his stunning transmogrification of James M. Cain’s pulp noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice – while also subverting the movement’s core rubric through use of professional actors and production designs. With its sprawling yet tightly structured tale of an earthy, closely-knit family that finds itself slowly but inexorably disintegrating upon migrating from the agrarian and rural “south” to the industrialized and urbanized “north” – with dreams of a better life in Milan – the film was at once timeless in its evocation of paradise, the false enticement of money and the corrupting influence of a metropolis, and representative of the post-War Italian zeitgeist. Though structured like a novel with chapters named after each of the brothers, and intricately weaved around the Perondi family that comprised of an overprotective matriarch (Katina Paxinou) and her five sons, it focussed primarily on the volatile and self-destructive Simone (Renato Salvatori) and the soft-spoken and idealistic Rocco (Alain Delon). The repercussions of their severely contradictory fortunes as professional boxers, and their doomed love affairs with Nadia (Annie Girardot), an alluring and fiercely independent prostitute, led them on a violent collision course. Delon, fresh off his sensational turn in Purple Noon which released in the same year, and Salvatori were both superb, while Girardot gave a smouldering and magnetic performance. Giuseppe Rotunno’s mesmeric, high-contrast B/W photography of Milan – with its cathedral, trams, foggy streets, laundromats and desolate outskirts – and Nino Rota’s melancholic score, added arresting dimensions to the film’s brutal and disturbing sequences that’d led to massive censorship challenges.

Director: Luchino Visconti

Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Family Drama/Ensemble Film

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Tuesday 17 January 2023

Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) [1960]

 Purple Noon’s synonymity with Alain Delon’s magnetic persona, mythical allure, feline profile and eerily shapeshifting performance is both a testimonial to René Clément’s terrific adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s chilling and mesmeric source novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, and a potential trap for losing sight of its many attributes beyond Delon’s star-making turn. Whenever a masterful novel is adapted into an absorbing film, it’s as fascinating to note their alignments as their departures. Clément adroitly retained the complex essence of Ripley’s disturbing naïveté, unpredictability, chameleon-like nature and sociopathy, and also key elements of the book’s addictive plot; however, it transformed the book’s elegant narrative into a more jagged structure – manifested from the get-go by its abrupt beginning in media res –; replaced the book’s ambiguous finale to the film’s fatalist moral closure which Highsmith apparently disliked; downplayed Ripley’s homoerotic undercurrents while imbuing him with narcissism; and turned the character of Greenleaf (brilliantly played by Maurice Ronet) – who Ripley (Delon) is tasked by the latter’s millionaire American father to bring back from Europe – from a docile, drifting and contented guy to an abrasive, casually brutal and violently impulsive man who’s not averse to cruelly hurting his delicate, beautiful and loving fiancée Marge (Marie Laforêt) and humiliating, even punishing, Tom for his dalliances. Tom, who’s literally shoved himself into the couple’s personal space and is allured by Greenleaf’s entitled life, is himself not averse to committing murders, stealing identity, scheming, perpetrating forgeries and embezzlements, and manipulating or deceiving people, including the gullible Marge. The luscious, sun-baked photography of the luxurious Italian setting – from the majestic Rome to crumbling towns and sumptuous coasts – added sinister sordidness and moody atmosphere to this viscerally immersive thriller.

Director: Rene Clement

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Psychological Thriller

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday 14 January 2023

Histoire(s) du Cinéma [1988-1998]

 To say that Godard’s magnum opus Histoire(s) du Cinéma – the 8-part video essay conceived while he was on lecture tours during the 80s, 10 years in the making, and clocking at a massive 266 minutes – is a monumental treatise on cinema is stating the obvious. It’s a dense, daunting, discursive, digressive, deeply self-reflexive, incredibly metatextual, unabashedly polemical, and radical reimagining of what cinema is and can be. And in turn this freeform, kaleidoscopic and demanding work – filled with hyperlinks, reflections, juxtapositions, dizzying montage, and intricate interplay of images, sounds and words – manifested everything that Godard was and remains – viz. a pioneer, a pathbreaker, a prophet, a subversive pun artist, a romantic, a rebel, a staggering intellectual, a profoundly progressive critical thinker and someone for whom history (and story) of cinema – as the wordplay in the title alluded to – and its form and dialectics, were inseparable from the history, story, interpretation and politics of the 20th century. His complex and sprawling meditation on the medium, therefore, encompassed everything from the American studio system to Soviet montage, from Italian neorealism to French avant-garde, and from wide-ranging impressions of other artforms (literature, painting, music) to auto-portraiture. These in turn were overlayed with his wry and weary commentary on fascism, imperialism, capitalism, consumerism, tyranny, exploitation and devastating wars that the century was besieged with, along with stirring espousal of revolutionary ideas and melancholic elegy on cinema. While it was impossible to make note of the slew of films that he referenced – which led to inevitable copyright issues, though, ironically, Godard exempted his own work from copyright restrictions – I managed to count 65-odd films that I’ve watched, though I’m sure I missed a few.

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday 7 January 2023

Black Girl [1966]

 Trailblazing Senegalese filmmaker, renowned writer and avowed Marxist Ousmane Sembène’s landmark debut film Black Girl – made just 6 years after his country’s independence from France – remains a ground-breaking work as much for its being one of the first films from sub-Saharan Africa to achieve global recognition as for being a simultaneously lyrical and lashing commentary on the ugly and still lingering yoke of colonialism, racialism and patronizing exploitation in post-colonial Senegal. That it was presented unequivocally and defiantly from the POV of its African protagonist made it all the more radical, powerful and political in that it gave a clear and articulate voice to the colonized – hitherto never the central piece even in the works of progressive Western filmmakers – and became representative of the broader continent that was in the process of regaining their rightful individual and collective identities. Adapted from a short story by Sembène himself – which, in turn, was loosely based on a real life incident – this was a stark, stirring and formally spare account of Diouana (devastatingly brought to life by Mbissine Thérèse Diop in her first and only acting turn), a young, gullible and dreamy girl who’s employed by a well-off French couple and brought from Dakar to the Côte d'Azur to be a nanny to their kids, only to realize that her job there’s that of a lowly domestic help for her “masters”. As this once carefree girl’s excitement of moving to France is crushed and her self-worth thoroughly dehumanized, leading the minimalist narrative – alternatively accompanied by jazz score and lilting Afro folk-music – to its harrowing and haunting climax, her oppressive “present” is juxtaposed with flashbacks from a freer, jauntier and more hopeful past.

Director: Ousmane Sembene

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama

Language: French

Country: Senegal

Wednesday 4 January 2023

Decision to Leave [2022]

 Decision to Leave is one of Park Chan-wook’s most muted works – notwithstanding its arresting set-pieces, panache and controlled stylistic flamboyance – given its relative lack of operatic flourishes. But its theme of dark and self-destructive obsessions, along with its formal palette that was marked with extreme precision – with sprinkles of twisted playfulness thrown in – made this gradually unfolding neo-noir an intriguing new turn for the South Korean maestro. One might also credit that turn to The Little Drummer Girl, his compelling slow-burn adaptation to TV of John le Carré’s Cold War thriller. Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is an insomniac police detective in Busan in a tenuous marriage. His dull, workaholic and largely solitary existence experiences an electrifying jolt when he takes on the investigation of a retired immigration worker who’s found dead at the foot of a cliff that he loved climbing. His doubts about the cause of death – was it an accident or suicide or homicide – turn into an obsession when he meets Seo-rae (Tang Wei), the victim’s cold, enigmatic, enticing, impossibly alluring and significantly younger widow who’d illegally emigrated from China many years back, works at a centre for elderly care, and harbours tantalizing secrets. Though Hae-jun becomes convinced that Seo-rae has killed her husband, the brilliant but heavily repressed cop – reminiscent of Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct – finds himself inexorably drawn to this stunning woman against his best judgements. Despite some of its narrative contrivances and relatively weaker 2nd half, this moody Hitchcockian thriller – boasting of an absorbing turn by Wei, gorgeous production designs, seductive use of Jung Hoon-hee’s song ‘Mist’, and impish play on the slippery nature of languages – made this a gripping, addictive and oftentimes enthralling crime thriller.

Director: Park Chan-wook

Genre: Crime Thriller/Post-Noir/Romantic Noir/Police Procedural

Language: Korean

Country: South Korea