Wednesday 28 February 2024

Léon Morin, Priest [1961]

 Léon Morin, Priest remains a fascinating anomaly in Melville’s filmography, considering that a secular Jew and left-wing atheist made this seemingly straight-faced work so heavily invested in theological and religious discourses. Yet, scratch the surface, and one finds its sly, ambiguous, enigmatic and roguish aspects aimed at subverting conventional spiritual portrayals. Adapted from Béatrix Beck's renowned novel, it additionally formed the middle-chapter in Melville’s famed trilogy on the Resistance, preceded by his austere debut feature Le Silence de la Mer, and followed by the exhilarating Army of Shadows. However, unlike the other two films, inquiries into the Occupation didn’t occupy the foreground here, even though they undeniably informed the context and proceedings. It’s centred on the tantalizing relationship between the eponymous pastor (Jean-Paul Belmondo, fresh of his smashing success in Godard’s Breathless, in his first collaboration with Melville) – a deadpan, charming and articulate working-class priest who’s persuasive in his job as a man of cloak, while also being aware of the impact he has on the women in the French Alpine town, as the men are either away or arrested or have died – and Barny (Emmanuelle Riva, who’d become a Nouvelle Vague icon through her engrossing turn in Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour), an atheist, sensual, cynical, politically engaged and unsatisfied single mother who’s vocally supportive of Communist rebels, dismissive of the church, and bold in her carnal desires. On an impish whim, she visits Léon to tease him, but ends up getting converted as well as attracted to him. Though not one of Melville’s greatest works, this luminously shot film, led by gripping turns by the two actors, made for an intelligent, nuanced and beguiling work in his canon.

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Religious Drama/War

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday 24 February 2024

The Silence of the Sea [1949]

 It was only appropriate that Jean-Pierre Melville, who belonged to a left-wing family and adopted this nom de guerre during his involvement with the French Resistance, made his filmmaking debut with Le Silence de la Mer, an adaptation of the book by Vercors (nom de plume of Jean Bruller), who too was a member of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France. The book was secretly published and distributed, and became an influential underground text, which Melville eloquently acknowledged in several ways – the opening scene indicated its clandestine and dissident nature; he filmed in the same house in which it was written; and he’d agreed to pull the plug on the film, including destroying the negatives, if Bruller refused approval for release. This Bressonian film – that is to say, spare, austere, minimalist and poetic parable with a deep moral core – clearly presaged Melvelle’s formal and aesthetic signatures that he’d take to bravura heights in subsequent years. In what he’d ironically quipped an “anti-film”, it focused on verbose one-way exchanges – brilliantly shot indoors in heavily expressionistic B/W by Henri Decaë – involving just three characters. A German officer (Howard Vernon), with a gushing love for French literature, is stationed in a house inhabited by an ageing French man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his young niece (Nicole Stéphane). Over the next few months, the naïve lieutenant indulges in sentimental monologues every evening, while the French pair refuses to acknowledge his presence, leading to a solemn meditation on political naïveté and passive resistance. It ended with a powerful line, which is the uncle’s sole response to the German during his departure, “It’s a noble thing for a soldier to disobey a criminal order.”

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Genre: Drama/Political Drama/War

Language: French

Country: France

Thursday 22 February 2024

The Wonders [2014]

 Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher stitched together The Wonders with such deceptive simplicity, delicacy and lightness that it’s easy to miss the various elements interwoven into it. Balancing naturalism, lyricism, understated immediacy and observational approach with undertones of wry satire, social commentary and magic realism, she crafted a spare yet emotionally resonant coming-of-age story that unfolded against a fading way of life outside the grid. Her interlocking portrayal of familial chaos against a vividly sunny countryside, on the verge of violently unravelling, reminds one of such films as Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga and Carla Simón’s Alcarràs; hardly incidental that all were helmed by women filmmakers adept at complementing ferocity with nuance, and political underpinnings with evocative intimacy. This last aspect was laced with additional meanings through its semi-autobiographical touches. Rohrwacher was born to German beekeeper father and Italian mother. The film’s adolescent protagonist Gelsomina (exceptionally performed by Alexandra Maria Lungu) – the introspective eldest of four sisters – similarly has a German beekeeper father in the form of the brusque and irritable Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), who’s fiercely adamant of retaining their austere lifestyle and agricultural purity borne out of his deep distrust of modernization and consumerism, and a loving if frazzled Italian mother (played, interestingly, by Alice’s elder sister Alba Rohrwacher). Their rural summer, spent collecting and processing honey with steadfast rigour, gets ruffled on account of two arrivals – a troubled German boy who’s taken in as temporary help, and a stunning buxom beauty (enacted with self-mocking irony by Monica Bellucci) spearheading a kitschy reality TV show patronizing and fetishising local culture that Gelsomina is hypnotized by. Hélène Louvart’s terrific soft-hued photography – anachronistically shot in 16mm – impregnated rich authenticity into the proceedings.

Director: Alice Rohrwacher

Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Coming-of-Age

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Monday 19 February 2024

Divorce Italian Style [1961]

 Divorce Italian Style – Pietro Germi’s magnificent first foray into comedy and a pioneering work in the “commedia all’italiana” or “Italian-style comedy” sub-genre, which derived its name from this very film – reminded me of such films from that decade as Buñuel’s Viridiana, Imamura’s The Pornographers and Herz’s The Cremator in how gallows humour, outré characterizations and a narrative seeped in grotesquerie can be audaciously employed for lashing satires on social mores, political happenings and human behaviour, and contain a moral core too. Its oily anti-hero, “Fefè” (Marcello Mastroianni), is a sleezy, lecherous and murderous louche, whose placid demeanour, facial twitches, Brilliantine-soaked hair and dapper suit amusingly informed his decadent aristocracy and machismo, and in turn the pervasive atmosphere of hypocrisy, male chauvinism and bad behaviour in provincial Italy. A smug and vacuous nobleman burdened by debts, living in a dilapidated house in a Sicilian town, he hatches an elaborate scheme to murder his overly fawning and clinging wife Rosalia (Daniela Rocca) – by luring her into the arms of her former flame, which will therefore earn him a lighter punishment as the patriarchal law, whose overt religiosity forbids divorce, would view it as a justifiable redressal of one’s honour – in order to satisfy his raging lust for his nubile, enticing and young cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli). The film was raucous, hilarious, unapologetically offensive, glorious filled with ironies and exaggerations, and cutting in its lampooning; idiosyncratically shot to amplify the farcical tone and sticky atmosphere; boasted of a fabulous comedic turn by Mastriano, who was courageously cast against type; and sly meta-commentary through references to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita where Mastriano, in a dramatically different persona, is seen seduced by Anita Ekberg.

Director: Pietro Germi

Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Marital Satire/Crime

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Thursday 15 February 2024

Riff-Raff [1991]

 After a difficult time in the 1980s when he struggled to have his works broadcast and distributed, Ken Loach begun blending ferocious political commentaries with narrative storytelling in the 90s, thus making them more palatable. He started with Hidden Agenda, a terrific political conspiracy thriller foregrounded on the Northern Ireland “Troubles”. Riff-Raff, his marvellous next film, set the tone for many of his subsequent anti-establishmentarian dramas centred on regular working-class people at the receiving end of governmental apathy. And, like the preceding movie, it too presented a lashing critique of Thatcher’s damaging reign. The film, interlacing infectious seriocomic tone with bleak social realism and bold left-wing politics, progressed from funny and boisterous to tender and poignant to furious and blazing in its depiction of a crew of construction labourers working without any physical or financial safety nets. They’re hired without background checks – thus enabling them to continue receiving benefits – and in lieu of that they’re forced to work in hazardous conditions, manage their own insurances and fired without any notice. Lending profound authenticity, it was written by Bill Jesse based on his personal experiences, while actors Robert Carlyle – in a smashing turn as Glaswegian jailbird Stevie attempting to walk the straight and narrow path – and Ricky Tomlinson – former union activist who gave a memorably gregarious turn while also serving as the film’s political conscience – too had experiences in this line. Ironically, the derelict North London hospital where work is shown happening to convert it into luxury apartments, anticipated what actually transpired. The raucous camaraderie and stirring class solidarity between the culturally diverse blue-collar workers was counterpointed with Stevie’s heartbreaking romance with fragile girl-woman and wannabe singer Susan (Emer McCourt).

Director: Ken Loach

Genre: Drama/Comedy/Social Drama/Romance

Language: English

Country: UK

Sunday 11 February 2024

Bill Douglas Trilogy: My Childhood [1972], My Ain Folk [1973], My Way Home [1978]

 Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas’ remarkable trilogy evokes irony as much for its cinematic legacy – criminally under-watched despite being celebrated British New Wave films – as for its formal and thematic interplay. The three films were relentlessly bleak, on account of their grubby and desolate industrial setting, grim portrayal of socioeconomic and familial impoverishment, and rigorously spare and grainy monochrome treatments with both aesthetics and narratives pared to the bones. Yet, in parallel, they possessed deep emotional lyricism, visual poetics, hope, tenderness and warmth. And, while it’s impossible to understate the trilogy’s eloquent working-class politics, it was, above all, an intensely personal work. Essentially a reimagining of Douglas’ own experience and memories of growing up amidst extreme poverty, hardships and estrangements in the mining village of Newcraighall, during and after WW2, the three slender films covered the childhood and teenage years of his alter-ego Jamie (played with taciturn impassiveness by Stephen Archibald, whose weather-beaten face belied his young age). Douglass, in fact, had found Archibald – a deeply troubled kid with whom he developed a life-long kinship – through complete chance at a bus stop. In My Childhood, 8-year-old Jamie – abandoned by his dad upon his mom’s internment at a mental institution – is seen living with his loving granny and elder cousin brother Tommy, while forming a close bond with a Germany POW. In My Ain Folk, Jamie goes to live with his difficult and neurotic maternal grandmother, where he becomes close to his aged granddad. And finally in My Way Home, post shuttling between foster care and barren home, he’s conscripted into RAF, and thereafter develops friendship with Robert – who has difficulty in understanding his thick Scottish accent – while stationed in Egypt.

Director: Bill Douglas

Genre: Drama/Film a Clef/Semi-Autobiographical/Coming-of-Age

Language: English

Country: UK/Scotland

Friday 9 February 2024

The All-Round Reduced Personality (Re-dupers) [1978]

 Helke Sander, who was a pioneering feminist activist, influential voice on the left and experimental filmmaker, existed in the overlapping intersections between cinema, politics and womanhood. Edda, her alter-ego in her brilliant feature-length directorial debut which she herself essayed, also had to similarly juggle between artistic impulses, political activism, low-paying job, economic survival, subaltern status as woman, and role as a single working mother in BDR. She works as a freelance photo-journalist that necessitates navigating through multiple assignments to make ends meet, wherein she mustn’t imbue any progressive political meanings into her stunning B/W images; she has a little daughter who loves clinging to her; she often has to work out of her tiny flat – which she shares with her lover and a friend – thus coalescing her personal, political and professional spaces; and she’s a member of a collective of politically minded women artists like herself. When they win a coveted government commission to create open-air photographic installations across West Berlin – a public album to further the city’s glamorous consumerist conception, and in turn undermine the socialist associations of their counterparts in the East – they decide to push the envelope by presenting a sardonic critique of the city’s self-image and subversive interpretations of the ubiquitous Wall. Unsurprisingly, their project elicits unfavourable reactions among the establishment and men. The film’s tone was one of tenderness and empathy, despite its spare aesthetics and stark monochromatic visuals, which were counterpointed by its mock-serious nature – wryly underscored by its ironic title which was a play on a communist maxim –, urgency, solidarity, and modernism. Its long tracking shots of the city, interestingly, reminded me of Akerman’s haunting News from Home from the previous year.

Director: Halke Sander

Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Feminist Film

Language: German

Country: Germany

Wednesday 7 February 2024

State of Siege [1972]

 With State of Siege – the scintillating final chapter in his landmark trilogy, and presaged by Z and The Confession – Costa-Gavras resoundingly established himself as a transnational political filmmaker unafraid of cataloguing abuses of power across diverse geographic milieus. While the previous films were set in Greece and Czechoslovakia, respectively, he shifted his focus to Latin America here for a daring indictment of the US’ interventionism, wherein it used nefarious means to propel and strengthen brutally repressive right-wing leaders and military juntas, in their quest for ideological supremacy in that part of the world. Unsurprisingly, it riled American conservatives to no end. Incidentally, while it was based on Uruguay, he shot it in Allende’s Chile – a country that he’d cover 12 years later with Missing, his compelling inquiry into the CIA’s role in the coup d'état against Allende. It began on an electrifying note with Montevideo literally in a state of siege, audaciously orchestrated through a flurry of cuts and angles, and a bevy of actors, with Martial Law declared and a combing operation underway. The reason, as is soon revealed, is that the Tupamaros – a left-wing guerilla outfit which had challenged the country’s civic-military dictatorship – have kidnapped a U.S. government official (Yves Montand) who’s there to train the Uruguayan police in the use of torture and violence against dissidents. Co-written with Franco Solinas – best known for Salvatore Guiliano and The Battle of Algiers –, composed through a bravura use of flashbacks, and circling through a stunning array of characters – impassioned rebels, courageous journalists, draconian cops, zealous politicos, sanctimonious priests – the film interlaced anger, irony, urgency and politically engaged conversations into a brilliant work that was both thrilling and sobering.

Director: Costa-Gavras

Genre: Thriller/Political Thriller/Film a Clef

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday 3 February 2024

The Confession [1970]

 The Confession, Costa-Gavras’ follow-up to his pulsating masterpiece Z, couldn’t be more dramatically contrasting in form, tone and milieu. Yet it was bound to the preceding smash hit as well the electrifying next film State of Siege, in that this formidable trilogy catalogued judicial overreach and abuse of power by the state against those it construed as political dissidents, and was bolstered by Yves Montand’s charismatic presence. Harsh, harrowing and disorienting, and yet also gripping and darkly irony, this edgy and compelling film made no bones about the filmmaker’s disdain for Stalinist totalitarianism and excesses despite his steadfast leftism. This crucial nuance was also underlined by association of multiple other people on the left in different capacities – actors Montand and Simone Signoret, writer Jorge Semprún, Chris Marker who served as still photographer during production, etc. – even though it inevitably evoked sharp political reactions. Based on Czechoslovak communist veteran Artur London’s memoirs L’Aveu, it chronicled his sudden arrest, long stretches of dehumanizing torture and deliberate manipulation into self-incriminating confession – on charges of Trotskyism, Titoism and Zionism – and thereafter the Slánský show trials he was made to stand along with many others; these, despite his past involvements in Spanish Civil War and French anti-Nazi Resistance, his internment in Mauthausen concentration camp, and his long-standing party position. Montand’s remarkable performance – he lost twenty-five pounds for the role – was matched by Gabriele Ferzetti as a hideously cunning interrogator, while the film’s bleak mood and claustrophobic spaces were impressively captured through washed out images by Raoul Coutard. Gavras’ political voice was matched by his narrative brilliance, in how he often jumped back and forth in time, invoked collective memory and demonstrated the underlying farce.

Director: Costa-Gavras

Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Historical Drama/Biopic

Language: French

Country: France