Sunday 31 March 2024

The Old Oak [2023]

 The Old Oak is supposedly Loach’s swansong, though – as a profound admirer of the British giant – one ardently hopes not. However, if that’s indeed the case, there couldn’t be a more fitting way for this impassioned chronicler of dreams, defiance and despairs of the working-class to bid adieu, than with this rallying cry of solidarity and resistance, wrapped in radical compassion and empathy. The concluding chapter in his gritty trilogy set in northeastern England – preceded by the magnificent I, Daniel Blake and the grim Sorry We Missed You – this fiercely topical work called to attention the systematic breakdown of a once-thriving mining town through governmental apathy and neoliberal policies, along with the bigotry, derision and xenophobic otherization faced by Syrian refugees forced to leave their war-ravaged country. A pub, the most British of institutes, served as the battleground for these seething, intermeshed topics. The titular tavern – its better days long gone and frequented only by few old-timers – and one of the town’s final public spaces, is run by TJ Ballantyne (Dave Turner), a lonely, weather-beaten man. He develops a deep bond with Yara (Ebla Mari), a young Syrian woman passionate about photography, and recalling – with a mix of fondness and melancholy – the 1984 miners’ strike where people broke bread together, they, along with a committed local organizer (Claire Rodgerson), start a community kitchen for the immigrants and impoverished locals. Discords inevitably get stoked amongst those who view the new inhabitants with extreme prejudice. Delicately counterpointing tenderness with anger and hope with disillusionment – evoked through authentic experiences of the non-professional actors – it provided a rousing distillation of Loach’s political activism through cinema, and his longstanding partnership with screenwriter Paul Laverty.

p.s. Watched it at the 2024 Bangalore International Film Festival (BIFFES)

Director: Ken Loach

Genre: Drama/Urban Drama

Language: English

Country: UK

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Evil Does Not Exist [2023]

 Contrary to what its ominously ironic title supposedly suggests, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi asserted otherwise – viz. evil’s malleable forms and arbitrary manifestations – in his moody, shape-shifting and beguiling film Evil Does Not Exist. The evocation of its disquieting atmosphere was established in the overture itself, which comprised of a languorous tracking shot observing a dense canopy of trees, accompanied by Eiko Ishibashi’s rapturous composition, with whom Hamaguchi had previously collaborated in the brilliant Drive My Car. The scene suddenly cuts and the non-diagetic score is abruptly replaced with eerie silence; this unsettling aesthetic shift recurred over the course of the deliberately paced narrative that ambiguously ended in media res, thus amplifying the impact of its shocking finale, while reinstating the densely moulded commentaries of this brooding morality tale and smouldering eco-political thriller. Set in a tranquil hamlet, its delicate ecological balance and the residents’ harmonious co-existence with nature come under direct threat when a rapacious Tokyo organization – sardonically embodying late-stage capitalism multiplied few times over – purchases land there for setting up “glamping”, i.e. a farcical playground for wealthy city dwellers, which is bound to pollute the nearby stream’s pristine water, increase chances of forest fires, and put local lifestyles at dire risk. Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), a taciturn man who does various odd jobs for villagers and has a profound intimacy with his stunningly photographed surroundings which he’s inculcated into his little daughter, embodies – unbeknownst to the company’s two representatives – the outward placidity and underlying ferocity of the natural world. In a fine display of nuance, these two reps, who elicit strong negative perceptions during a meeting with the residents who display stirring community solidarity, are themselves exasperated by their devious profession.

p.s. Watched it at the 2024 Bangalore International Film Festival (BIFFES)

Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Mystery

Language: Japanese

Country: Japan

Monday 25 March 2024

Fallen Leaves [2023]

 Aki Kaurismäki had considered quitting filmmaking after The Other Side of Hope, but had left the door ajar about completing what, along with Le Havre, was being referred to as ‘Refugee/Dockyard Trilogy’. To the joy of every cinephile, he returned behind the camera 6 years later with Fallen Leaves; but, in a thoroughly unanticipated volte face, he made it as the delightful fourth chapter in his magnificent ‘Proletariat Trilogy’ instead, which arguably comprised of three of his finest works – viz  Shadows in Paradise, Ariel and The Match Factory Girl – albeit, closest in both storyline and tone to the first film in how it too portrayed in a distinctively Kaurismäkian manner… that is to say, droll, deadpan, understated, melancholic, and with bone dry humour providing piquant accompaniment to sharp social and political awareness, and therefore “a delectable yet quietly poignant romantic comedy on two people who’ve never seen nor aspired for better days” (to reuse my words while reflecting on that seriocomic gem). The two lonely, drifting, financially struggling and kind-hearted working-class protagonists pushing into their middle-ages – reminiscent of the unforgettable duo of Kati Outinen and Matti Pellonpää – are the mournful Ansa (Alma Pöysti), who’s forced to take up one meagre odd-job after another, and the taciturn Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), a dismissed sandblaster slipping into alcoholism. Over the course of the film’s slender length, they shyly meet, develop mutual liking, but keep losing each other for both personal and circumstantial reasons. Filled with an eclectic Finnish soundtrack that asserted Kaurismäki’s terrific ear for music, and shot in vivid yet subdued palettes that distilled poetry and warmth from despair and desolation, this bittersweet film also celebrated cinema through various tongue-in-cheek references.

p.s. Watched it at the 2024 Bangalore International Film Festival (BIFFES)

Director: Aki Kaurismaki

Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Romantic Comedy

Language: Finnish

Country: Finland

Saturday 23 March 2024

The Battle [2023]

 1968 was a watershed year for rousing anti-government and anti-establishment protest movements across the world, dominated in most cases by progressive students. It represented the peak of resistance in Brazil too which was under military dictatorship since 1964, and the Battle of Maria Antônia in October 1968, which was a conflict between the left-wing students and professors of São Paulo’s esteemed public university – who were fearlessly dissenting and demonstrating against the increasingly repressive dictatorship, and even hosting a referendum against it – and the vicious fascist militia from a private institute across the street who were actively assisted by the police, represented a tragic pivotal moment for the country. Made with the aesthetics of guerilla filmmaking and structured in the form of a lost revolutionary diary, Vera Egito’s The Battle is a scintillating account of the fateful final 24 hours of that clash that ended with state-sponsored crackdown and suspension of the final vestiges of civil liberties in Brazil. Evocatively shot in grainy 16mm B/W, the film chronicled the flurry of happenings – interlaced with poetic undertones and two stirring relationships, viz. a long brewing romance between a married prof and her colleague who she’s known since their student days, and a sudden passionate affair between two dazzling female students – by thrillingly intercutting between those already at the struggle’s forefront and those who’re organically drawn out of their non-committal stances. Egito eloquently recalled the 21 dark years of dictatorship by breaking the film into 21 brilliantly orchestrated sequences, with all of them being bravura single-take tracking shots, wherein the camera glided through parallel and interrelated interactions and actions, across both closed and open spaces, within the course of each shot composition.

p.s. Watched it at the 2024 Bangalore International Film Festival (BIFFES)

Director: Vera Egito

Genre: Drama/Historical Drama

Language: Portuguese

Country: Brazil

Friday 22 March 2024

The Holdovers [2023]

 Narratives featuring two difficult individuals who overcome not just their borderline hostilities, but also gain rare insights into the other and thereby form an unlikely bond, upon being compelled to endure each other’s companies despite mutual differences and dislike, are as old as cinema itself, especially among its popular variants. Alexander Payne, who’s been adept at marrying Indie sensibilities with mainstream storytelling, made smart and captivating use of this otherwise hackneyed strand in The Holdovers; that it was also an outwardly bitter but essentially fuzzy and likeable Christmas movie, added to both its conventionality and charm. Set in an elite boarding school over the course of the winter holidays in 1970, it portrayed the growing camaraderie between an irascible and infuriating professor of the classics (Paul Giamatti) – derided and hated by all, which he reciprocates with undiluted scorn – and an intelligent but troubled teenaged student (Dominic Sessa), who’s been forced to stay back under the former’s guardianship, much to the chagrin of both. Giving them company is an African-American woman (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) who’s the school’s canteen manager and a bereaved mother, with her son having been killed in the Vietnam War. Payne could’ve interlaced striking commentaries on class and race into the film, and therefore taken it beyond just its aesthetic homage to the New American Cinema of the 1970s and instead pushed the cinematic boundaries like them; his thematic intent here, however, was steadfastly hinged around personal redemption. What prevented its devolution into just another conventional fare were Giamatti’s stellar turn as the lonely and caustic man, the script’s edgy tones that kept sentimentality in check, and the shared empathy that develops between the three social outsiders.

Director: Alexander Payne

Genre: Comedy/Drama/Road Movie/Buddy Film

Language: English

Country: US

Sunday 17 March 2024

The Teachers' Lounge [2023]

 Packed with paranoia, anxiety, angst and outrage, amidst a rapidly escalating scenario and multipolar confrontations, İlker Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge is a rare pulsating thriller that’s set rigorously within the confines of a school. And this dynamic, variegated, ostensibly hallowed and supposedly tightly controlled space, in turn, served as microcosmic representation of the broader society, and a sharp critique of it too. Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) is a young teacher recently hired at a junior high school, where she teaches math and PE to 7th graders. She’s passionately committed to her pedagogy, idealistic in her world-view, and – given her Polish origin and therefore aware of the challenges at integration faced by foreign-born persons – possesses an innate protectiveness towards social outsiders. The film begins with an uncomfortable scenario wherein, on account of a series of small thefts, Carla witnesses her colleagues manipulating a couple of young students into denouncing their classmates, which soon extends towards false accusations being levelled at a student of Turkish origin. Fuelled by her idealism and intent on getting to the bottom of this issue, she decides to entrap the culprit; however, by doing so, she herself indulges in an ethically dubious act, and inadvertently sets loose an uncontrolled chain reaction that puts her in conflict with many of her fellow teachers, some of the students and nearly all their parents. Benesch put in a stunning performance, rippling with emotional turmoil, arresting intensity, and a growing sense of helplessness, as did Leonard Stettnisch as a gifted but increasingly troubled student, in this taut work that, despite its narrative brevity, touched upon quite a few themes, including bullying, misinformation, systemic racism, privacy rights, censorship and cancel culture.

Director: Ilker Catak

Genre: Drama/Thriller

Language: German

Country: Germany

Saturday 16 March 2024

Monster [2023]

 Monster – Kore-eda’s first film in Japan since his feral found-family masterpiece Shoplifters, having made The Truth in France and Broker in South Korea since then – is a sensitive and delicately-strung queer coming-of-age film. Though his first exploration of this topic, it felt connected to the rest of his canon as he’s made multiple films on social outsiders and tangled human relationships both centred around kids and featuring them in significant roles. He crafted this like a three-act play, wherein “Rashomon Effect” is resorted to in showing the same chain of incidents from three different perspectives. However, while the celebrated Kurosawa work demonstrated the fallacy of an objective truth and posited the co-existence of multiple variants of it, here the objective was decidedly simpler, viz. to clarify what actually happened through revelation of new information from each subsequent POV. While this intricate plotting device added an air of unfolding mystery to the proceedings, Kore-eda’s inclinations for sentimental flourishes (and contrivances) were detrimental to its cinematic integrity on occasions. The evolving bond between Minato, an emotionally confused fifth-grader, and Yori (played with heartbreaking liveliness by Hinata Hiiragi), a sweet if oddball kid who’s continually targeted for his non-heteronormative behavioural manifestations, is first shown through the eyes of Minato’s single-mother (Sakura Andō) who believes that his son is facing abuse at school. The contexts and meanings, unsurprisingly, dramatically change when we then witness what had transpired from the perspectives of school teacher Hori (Eita Nagayama) and Minato, thus delivering overarching commentaries on pat judgements, bullying, dysfunctional relationships, and conformity. Renowned musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose resplendent piano compositions added emotional resonance to many of the sequences, sadly passed away before the film released.

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Genre: Drama/Buddy Film/Coming-of-Age

Language: Japanese

Country: Japan

Friday 15 March 2024

Anatomy of a Fall [2023]

 Riveting, piercingly intelligent and tantalizingly orchestrated, Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall had multiple thematic elements woven into its gradually unfolding narrative – marital decay to the point of mutual damage; the penchant for conflating art with the artist; blurring of lines between fact and fiction in autofictions where the former shapes the latter; the glaring pitfalls of confirmation bias, be it in personal spaces or forensic analyses – thus expanding it beyond a courtroom thriller. The captivating opening scene, where Sandra (Sandra Hüller) – a successful German novelist who lives with her French husband (Samuel Theis) and their visually-impaired 11-year-old son (Milo Machado-Graner), at an isolated chalet in the French Alps – gets awkwardly disrupted by the blasting sounds of an edgy and enrapturing instrumental composition by 50 Cent played by her husband in another room, while engaging in a flirtatious banter with a young female interviewer. Shortly after the interview ends, the husband is found dead on the snow. Did he die on account of an accidental fall or was it a suicidal act or was he pushed by Sandra? If the latter, did she do it on an impulse or was it premeditated, and what was the motive for it? A stunning pivotal scene towards the end, wherein a conversation between the couple explodes into a violent confrontation – reminiscent of a similarly explosive sequence in Marriage Story – delivered a clinical dissection on the subjectivity of laying blame, and provided the icing on Hüller’s ferocious turn. Her deliciously enigmatic performance, in fact, made it impossible to assign culpability. The courtroom proceedings were sharply etched too, thanks to an intelligent script co-written by Triet and Arthur Harari, who’re ironically live-in partners.

Director: Justine Triet

Genre: Drama/Legal Drama/Marital Drama

Language: French/English

Country: France

Wednesday 13 March 2024

Aprile (April) [1998]

 Nanni Moretti’s delightfully eccentric, endlessly amusing and disarmingly accomplished Aprile was made in a similar vein as his magnificent previous film Dear Diary – viz. as an idiosyncratic, episodic and heavily self-reflexive diary film; albeit, more political, and crazier too. It wryly manifested opposites – private and professional spaces, high and low art, artifice and authenticity, infantilism and adulthood, fiction and reportage, etc. – and, in turn, blurred the intersections between the personal and the political with self-effacing humour and deadpan irony. Starring the filmmaker as his neurotic, tad snobbish, politically engaged and chatterbox onscreen persona, it criss-crossed through three interlocking strands over a particularly eventful 3-4 years in his life. Italy’s operatic political developments played out in the background, starting with the 1994 elections won by the right coalition headed by media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi – that made a terribly disillusioned Moretti light up a joint – and the victory of the Left 2 years later that thrilled him as much as the birth of his son in the same year; various events, in parallel, shaped that era, be it the drowning of a boat full of Albanian immigrants by the Italian coastal guard or an attempted secession. He decides to make a documentary chronicling the Italian polity, while harbouring an on-off desire to direct an outré musical about a Trotskyist pastry chef, and struggling with both creative block and personal distractions. The latter aspect was amplified by his anxiety and hysteria leading to parenthood and beyond. Filled with hilarious visual gags, farcical exchanges, satiric depictions and ample autobiographical components, including featuring both his wife and mother as themselves, the film wasn’t just a formally adventurous work, but an emotionally resonant one too.

Director: Nanni Moretti

Genre: Comedy/Political Satire/Social Satire/Diary Film/Film a Clef

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Monday 11 March 2024

Raining Stones [1993]

 Raining Stones, like the best of Ken Loach’s working-class films, was interlaced with political angst, social realism, profound empathy, solid old-fashioned storytelling, and a terrific ear for local dialects. The film, that progressively transitioned from being funny and picaresque to poignant and desolate to tense and furious, presented a deftly realized look at the lives of the marginalized in post-Thatcher England under the grips of a crushing economic depression, thus making it a fitting companion piece to his brilliant previous film Riff-Raff.  Bob (Bruce Jones) is an unemployed Irish Catholic man living on dole, which isn’t enough for the sustenance of his family that comprises of his wife Anne (Julie Brown) and little daughter. Hence, he, along with his gregarious unemployed buddy Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson), keeps exploring ways to hustle some extra money – pilfering sheep from the countryside, stealing turf from a private club, cleaning drains, working as a bouncer, etc. – to make ends meet. However, his struggle gets amplified when his van gets stolen, and more so when he – against the sensible advices of Anne, his atheist father-in-law, and even the surprisingly atypical Father Barry (Tom Hickey) – decides to purchase an expensive dress for her daughter’s Communion. Things become especially awry when he borrows from a vicious loan shark (Jonathan James). Loach infused humour, warmth and unanticipated hope into the otherwise bleak storyline, and smartly deviated in his characterizations and narrative arc to avoid stereotypes and predictability, thus adding nuance and depth into the mix. The script by socialist playwright Jim Allen balanced the film’s political and emotional cores, while exquisite turns by Jones, Tomlinson and Brown, and gritty photography of actual Manchester locales, enhanced its rich authenticity.

Director: Ken Loach

Genre: Drama/Comedy/Social Drama/Family Drama

Language: English

Country: UK

Friday 8 March 2024

Illustrious Corpses [1976]

 Rosi’s brooding, ominous and gripping slow-burn political conspiracy thriller Illustrious Corpses – adapted from renowned Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia’s novel Equal Danger – emphatically ranks amongst the most accomplished films of this sub-genre, that’d witnessed an explosion during the late-60s and 70s, even if it’s not as widely celebrated as many others. It was as piercingly reflective of that era of widespread governmental distrust on account of the growing totalitarian tendencies in the Western world, as it’s frighteningly relevant today in its unsettling depiction of a post-truth world where criminal connivance and media manipulations by governmental agencies, military-industry complex and deep state players have become par for the course. The shadowy collusion between the reactionary state, army, big business and the church – in order to combat left-wing ideas, mass protest movements and radical expressions of dissent – which Inspector Rogas (Lino Ventura) gradually stumbles upon while investigating the murders of several prominent judges, also imbued stunning particularity in terms of the 70s zeitgeist in Italy. Ventura brought in a magnificent mix of gruff stolidity, existential weariness and simmering paranoia, which brilliantly juxtaposed the rotten state of affairs exemplified by the thuggish Chief of Police (Tino Carraro), the sinister Security Minister (Fernando Rey) and the arrogant Supreme Court President (Max von Sydow). The gorgeous, washed-out photography and minimalist jazz score superbly accentuated the film’s absorbing atmosphere dripping with cynicism, subterfuge, fatalism and melancholy. The obliquely constructed narrative, interestingly, began with an ironic sequence that mordantly underscored the ossified nature of the establishment, and ended with a cynical utterance (“the truth isn’t always revolutionary”) that was a desolate inversion of a famous saying by the iconoclastic Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who Rosi deeply admired.

Director: Francesco Rosi

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Police Procedural

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Tuesday 5 March 2024

Lucky Luciano [1973]

 Rosi’s terrific film Lucky Luciano – with its rigorous aesthetic palette, overarching thematic preoccupations and an overriding sense of mundaneness that made it radically antithetical to the gangster genre – released between Coppola’s epic and baroque gangland sagas The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. No wonder, it didn’t receive the attention that it should’ve, even though it was as riveting and stylistically flamboyant as anything that he’d made. Like his masterworks Salvatore Guiliano and The Mattei Affair, this too was a boldly kaleidoscopic piece of investigative and political filmmaking centred on actual, ferocious and powerful Sicilian men – where sequences freely segued from one timeline and location to another – thus connecting them into a cinematic trilogy. Furthermore, like those films, we see “Lucky” Luciano (Gian Maria Volonté in a exquisitely restrained turn) – the formidable “boss of bosses” who, upon being exiled to Italy by the US, set-up a sprawling international empire – and are informed of the political contexts that enabled his rise and presaged his death, without any intimate peeks into him whose bespectacled, unassuming and routine-bound nature, ironically, belied his mythic persona. This grand indictment of the US’ Machiavellian political machinations, which enabled the rise of the Mafiosi only for it to become a Frankenstein’s Monster, also starred Rod Steiger as a loquacious informant and – continuing Rosi’s love for “authentic” casting – Charles Siragusa, the American narcotics agent who’d relentlessly pursued Luciano, as himself. While shot like a journalistic docudrama, it veered briefly for a hypnotic, breathtaking and operatic montage – recalling The Godfather, albeit near the beginning itself – that dizzyingly intercut between the clinical elimination of all his rivals on the same day that Luciano had orchestrated and his celebratory dinner.

Director: Francesco Rosi

Genre: Drama/Crime Drama/Historical Drama/Gangster Movie/Biopic

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Saturday 2 March 2024

The Mattei Affair (Il Caso Mattei) [1972]

 Rosi made dazzling use of a polyphonic, multi-perspective and non-linear form in The Mattei Affair – recalling his landmark film Salvatore Guiliano – which made it an exhilaratingly kaleidoscopic biopic, thrilling piece of investigative journalism and complex historical document rolled into one. He counterpointed documentary realism with the riveting tempo of a conspiracy thriller, and walked a delicate line between questioning official verdicts while avoiding populist postulations, which combined to make this astonishing work a formally audacious exercise and a seminal example of political filmmaking. At the core of its intricately orchestrated tapestry was the towering figure of Enrico Mattei – played with electrifying charisma by Gian Maria Volonté – a former anti-fascist partisan who’d been tasked with dismantling the ailing Mussolini-era petroleum agency AGIP after WW2, but instead converted it into the gigantic behemoth ENI which came to rival the Big Oil oligopoly, and made him an immensely influential business magnate and public figure. He radically challenged the status quo by brokering deals with Soviets, Arabs and Africans; he was openly critical of French colonialism in Algeria; and his allegiances cut across Italy’s political spectrum. Consequently, when his private plane mysteriously crashed in 1962 – which formed its starting point and around which it hinged – anyone from the CIA and OAS to the Mafiosi could’ve engineered the alleged sabotage. As a discomfiting afterword, journalist Mauro De Mauro, who was investigating into Mattei’s death in 1970 on Rosi’s behest, disappeared too, further indicating a cover-up. Interestingly, this vividly shot and ominously scored film shared that year’s Palm d'Or with Elio Petri’s downbeat The Working Class Goes to Heaven, another political film that had Volonté in the lead and became obscure despite the coveted prize.

Director: Francesco Rosi

Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Historical Drama/Biopic

Language: Italian

Country: Italy