Saturday 27 April 2024

The Plough (Le Grand Chariot) [2023]

 Love, family, friendship and the passion for one’s craft were the overarching themes in The Plough, another delicately textured entry to the quintessential Garrelian universe, with its interplay of melancholy and sensuousness, delineations of bohemian artists and drifting lovers with intimate brushstrokes, romantic entanglements and infidelities (portrayed with restraint, the messy repercussions notwithstanding), understated elegy to the irrevocable passing of time, and, most importantly, the inherently self-reflexive form. Autofiction has been a running thread in his filmography – stringing together tapestries informed by intensely personal facets from his life – which his latest work embraced with understated ardour. The minimalist narrative is centred on a family-run puppeteer troupe – adored paterfamilias (Aurélien Recoing); his children Louis (Louis Garrel), Martha (Esther Garrel) and Lena (Lena Garrel); and aged grandmother (Francine Bergé) – who’re bound to this charmingly antiquated artform. When the father suddenly dies, however, the group starts drifting apart – Louis quits to pursue career in acting; Martha, unable to move on, decides to run the show along with the politically active Lena despite the acute financial woes; Peter (Damien Mongin), Louis’ mercurial friend who’d joined the group, renews his self-destructive tryst with painting; and the eccentric granny, a left-wing nonconformist, starts slipping into dementia. Garrel’s first film in colour since the exquisite A Burning Hot Summer, it gently nodded to his late father Maurice who was a puppeteer before becoming an actor; furthermore, the siblings were played by his own children; Aurélien’s father Alain, meanwhile, was Maurice’s colleague during their puppeteering days. Mortality was a recurring motif too; aside from the two onscreen deaths in it – captured with wry equanimity – renowned screenwriter and Garrel’s frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière died during the scripting stage.

Director: Philippe Garrel

Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Film a Clef

Language: French

Country: France

Thursday 25 April 2024

Kayo Kayo Colour? (Which Colour?) [2023]

 Most films that attempt to demonstrate the experiences of marginalized communities have a propensity for depicting them as either angry or exploited “victims”. The more authentic, meaningful and nuanced representation, however, might instead be to delineate their lives in their mundaneness, ordinariness, vulnerabilities and everyday emotions. Such an approach – formally and politically – brings to mind such gems as Bresson’s Mouchette, Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, McQueen’s Lovers Rock, etc. Shahrukhkhan Chavada – who was born in the year of DDLJ’s release and named as such by his mom who’s a fan of the Bollywood superstar – opted for that quietly radical approach, perhaps as an expression of personal and collective resistance, in his remarkable debut feature Kayo Kayo Colour? Shot using long static takes in austere monochrome, on location, resorting to minimalist faux-vérité aesthetics, echoing restrained humanism, and employing a non-professional cast consisted of real-life couples and siblings playing as such onscreen, this film bore hallmarks of Italian neorealism, Iranian cinema, Lav Diaz and observational documentaries, thus revealing not just the filmmaker’s social and political consciousness, but his eclectic cinematic influences too. With its title indicating a children’s game – ironically, one that involves spotting colours – it portrayed 1 ½ days in the life of a working-class Muslim family, comprising of Razzak (Imtiyaz Shaikh), who’s hoping to purchase an autorickshaw, his wife Raziya (Samina Shaikh), who manages household chores, daughter Ruba who’s craving for an aerated beverage, son Faiz, and Razzak’s aged parents. They stay at an overpacked ghetto in Ahmedabad and bear scars of the 2002 pogrom, even though these get only fleetingly mentioned, and the day – that would witness a despotic governmental proscription – devolves into a bleakly consequential one for them.

Director: Shahrukhkhan Chavada

Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Family Drama/Political Drama

Language: Gujarati/Hindi

Country: India

Monday 22 April 2024

Aattam (The Play) [2023]

 Aattam is based on the topic of sexual harassment at workplace. But, what made Anand Ekarshi’s assured debut feature an especially riveting and nuanced work, was in its manifestation of how this gets doubted, trivialized, and responded to in varying shades of offensiveness, insensitivity and expediency, through behavioural triggers that’re at times even subliminal in nature on account of normalized patriarchal tendencies.  That, in turn, can make even a seemingly safe and progressive workplace inherently problematic and fragile. And that’s not all. The director made the courageous decision to depict the proceedings through a multiplicity of male gazes, thus making it all the more visceral, and which he smartly filmed with elements of a locked room mystery and quasi-judicial thriller. The setting is an avant-garde theatre troupe, whose members pursue diverse professions – both white-collared and working class – and therefore belong to different economic classes, but bound by their love for the stage, even though it can’t sustain their livelihoods. However, it predominantly comprises of men, with Anjali (Zarin Shihab), who’s in a complicated relationship with a fellow actor (Vinay Forrt) in the midst of a messy divorce, being the only exception. Upon the successful staging of their latest play, they have a celebratory party where she gets molested by one of her colleagues. The men in the group assemble for an investigation into the accusation and alignment on how they should deal with the alleged perpetrator. The exchanges, however, take unpredictable turns with each new accusation, counter-accusation, rationale, revelation, and unanticipated extrinsic developments. The film ended on a brilliantly metatextual note where we finally witness the interpretation and representation of the proceedings thus far from the sole woman’s perspective.

Director: Anand Ekarshi

Genre: Drama/Chamber Drama/Mystery

Language: Malayalam

Country: India

Saturday 20 April 2024

Joram [2023]

 Devashish Makhija boldly combined bleak social observations and scorching political inquiries with genre elements and narrative urgency – thus smartly overlaying popular narrative forms on subaltern themes – in Joram. It quite ferociously commented on the unabated marginalization of the already marginalized tribal community, through the rancid politics of “development” and brute power of the state machinery – albeit, in the garb of a taut chase, revenge and survival thriller. Dasru (Manoj Bajpayee) is a migrant construction worker living a squalid existence in Mumbai along with his wife (Tannishtha Chatterjee). He, unbeknownst to those around him, had a combustible past life – he was once a member of a rebel guerilla outfit in the Jharkhand forests that was engaged in a violent battle with the political-industrial nexus to prevent the appropriation of their lands – which he’d fled from to escape the cycle of violence and its eventual extermination by the state. His past, however, catches up with him when he gets identified by a vengeful tribal politician (Smita Tambe) – her monstrosity amplified by her collaboration with those who’re engaged in the annihilation of her community – who has his wife brutally murdered and compels him to go on the run. A reluctant cop (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), who hasn’t lost his moral compass despite the mucky environment surrounding him, is tasked with liquidating the helpless man. The suspension of disbelief that the chase necessitates – especially Dasru’s nightmarish odyssey along with an infant – becomes a relatively minor footnote in this canvas laced with fury, anxiety, disdain and loss. Dasru’s bafflement upon seeing his cherished land transformed into desolate dystopia – lush forests stripped into barren mines and rivers guzzled by dams – made for a particularly haunting imprint.

Director: Devashish Makhija

Genre: Thriller/Political Thriller/Crime Thriller

Language: Hindi

Country: India

Thursday 18 April 2024

The Zone of Interest [2023]

 Jonathan Glazer’s chilling examination of the co-existence of mundane and monstrous – and shattering manifestation of Hannah Arendt’s powerful phrase from her seminal reportage Eichmann in Jerusalem – was as much a meditation on the Holocaust where industrialized extermination was perpetuated by white-collar bureaucrats zealously committed to overachieving their quotas and targets, as a devastating indictment of the complicity of the rest through wilful denial of genocide. The film’s title, aside from its reference to the coinage by the Nazi forces to describe the areas surrounding the Auschwitz camps, therefore also sardonically demonstrated people’s propensity for being oblivious to and even being apologists for the killings of those not belonging to their “zones of interest”. The latter aspect was emphasized by Glazer’s moral courage in expressing solidarity with Palestinians and “Not in My Name” campaign. Loosely based on Martin Amis’ novel, it depicted – through electrifying and formally rigorous scene compositions, virtuoso sound design, and a meticulously shaped script developed through a decade’s research – the unsettling domesticity and ordinariness of Rudolph Höss (an eerily unassuming Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (a frighteningly brilliant Sandra Hüller) who with their kids reside in an idyllic home adjacent to the death camp. Consequently, while the camera never looks beyond the walls, what’s happening there is obliquely and viscerally indicated through discomfiting minutiae, which made it an especially clinical and disturbing evocation of malevolent apathy. Glazer found the premise – demystification of evil by situating the film as “a story of here and now”, rather than “as something safely in the past” – so relentlessly dark that he interspersed it with stirring acts of resistance by 12-year-old Polish girl Aleksandra Bystroń-Kołodziejczyk, who he’d met shortly before her death.

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Genre: Drama/Historical Drama/Family Drama

Language: German/Polish/Yiddish

Country: UK

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Afire (Roter Himmel) [2023]

 Afire, Christian Petzold’s smouldering and mesmeric exploration of artistic aspirations/inadequacies, creative process and self-discovery, might well be his most beguiling film to date. The Rohmeresque conversational style, languid intimacy of its setting, and unfolding relationships that’re charged yet mellow – attributes which likened it to a dry comedy of manners meets lazy hangout film, and therefore decidedly removed from his prior films – stunningly pivoted into a more melancholic, moody and elusive work by its end with hints of ecological commentary, splashes of bittersweet unrequited yearning and dazzling metafictional elements that infused new meanings into the proceedings thus far. The second chapter in his planned trilogy on mythical elements transposed into contemporaneous settings – Undine had water as its motif, while it’s fire here – and his third collaboration with the effortlessly effervescent Paula Beer (their first film together was Transit, an exquisite interpretation of Anna Seghers’ extraordinary novel of the same name), it’s centred on grumpy, irascible and self-centred writer Leon (Thomas Schubert) who’s come over to a summer holiday lodge on the Baltic Sea, along with his friend Felix (Langston Uibel), for an artists’ retreat of sorts where he plans to complete his second novel before meeting his editor while Felix works on his photography portfolio. With a nature alternating between edgy and pompous, he becomes subliminally conflicted upon finding himself in the company of the vivacious and nonchalant Nadja (Beer), who sells ice creams, has noisy romping sessions in the night, and harbours a hidden literary side; meanwhile, the ominous foreshadowing of forest fires looms in the backdrop. Buoyed by sun-kissed photography and a sparingly used score, this is a deceptively electrifying work by a filmmaker breaking new artistic grounds.

Director: Christian Petzold

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Romantic Drama

Language: German

Country: Germany

Saturday 13 April 2024

Green Border [2023]

 Celebrated Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland’s powerful and harrowing film Green Border riled up her country’s ruling right-wing polity to the point that that they launched a poisonous campaign to vilify its filmmaker for her fearless political convictions. This, of course, wasn’t surprising, even if its magnitude was shocking. The film is a ferocious battle cry highlighting the plight of immigrants fleeing their homes with tenuous hopes and scant means at their disposal, and therefore advocating infinite empathy towards this vulnerable community, as opposed to dehumanizing them, inflicting violence and turning them into political pawns; the ruling coalition government, unfortunately, is fervid in its anti-immigrant stance and their border military forces have been treating the refugees with exactly the kind of brutality that the film unflinchingly depicted. Shot in stunning B/W which permeated urgency and authenticity to the proceedings, this epic work captured a flurry of perspectives through interlocking narrative strands. It began by focusing on a Syrian family and an Afghan woman arriving in Belarus with the objective of crossing over to Poland, and therefore EU, only to realize that, like other Middle-Eastern and African refugees, they’ve become fodder for a nightmarish ping-pong between the antagonistic border forces who’re competing with each other on savagery. The focus then goes on to encompass a conflicted Polish guard, a defiant humanitarian team spearheaded by two courageous sisters, and a feisty psychiatrist who decides to take radical action. The film, that ended with glimpses of Ukrainian refugees being welcome into the country by thousands – as they should be, thus ruefully underscoring the ironic and hypocritical underpinnings to this tragic issue – tempered its scorching dissent with electrifying solidarity and a sliver of hope.

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

Director: Agnieszka Holland

Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Ensemble Film

Language: Arabic/Polish/English

Country: Poland

Thursday 11 April 2024

Terrestrial Verses [2023]

 The personal couldn’t have been more political, and vice versa, in director-writer duo Alireza Khatami and Ali Asgari’s dry, sardonic and deceptively unassuming film Terrestrial Verses. Through a deadpan mix of episodic form, sparse storytelling, the distinctive flavour of documentary reportage, and biting straight-faced satire, it provided kaleidoscopic glimpses into a society where ordinary and everyday folks must constantly grapple with authoritarianism, lopsided power structures, inexorable patriarchy, religious dogmatism, moral policing, casual misogyny, ham-handed censorship and crushing bureaucracy. Comprising of ten short vignettes shot in static square frames along the lines of talking head interviews, wherein those in positions of authority and/or power are off camera while regular citizens – subjected to the former’s decidedly absurdist brunt – are facing the screen during their one-on-one interactions, we see an obstinate parent of a newborn baby, a carefree little girl, a defiant female school student, an aged woman who’s lost her dog, an infuriated woman cab driver with cropped hair, a perplexed man with Rumi’s poetry tattooed on his body, a harassed female interviewee, a diffident job-seeker, an exasperated filmmaker striving to get his script cleared – which added a mordant self-reflexive touch as both filmmakers, like many of their subversive contemporaries, have faced such a scenario – and an antiquated man who finally witnesses the societal foundations literally crumbling. Made and distributed using subterfuge in order to evade the country’s restrictive censorship laws, the film used dry and bleak humour to demonstrate the lives of people shorn of personal agency and being governed from birth till date with iron-fisted control. The film, therefore, can be considered as reflective of the theocratic modern-day Iran as of any Kafkaesque totalitarian regime across geographies and eras.

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

Directors: Ali Asgari & Alireza Khatami

Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/Social Satire

Language: Persian

Country: Iran

Tuesday 9 April 2024

Beyond the Sight & Sound Canon

"They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?" (shortened, TPSDT) - one of the most referenced film websites out there - had approached a number of film critics & cinephiles in Aug 2023, incl. yours truly, with a truly ambitious objective. They wanted to create a list of essential/greatest feature-length films that hadn't received even a single vote in the 2022 Sight & Sound poll.

Their final list - compiling which must have been a monster task - was published yesterday, and it can be seen, savoured & referenced at their here. Furthermore, out of the overall 839 individual ballots that they received, they've published 273, which they've labelled as "critics' ballots.

Glad & humbled to share that the list which I had shared with them features among those 273 (which includes only 6 individuals from India), and my submission can be seen here. I've also posted them below, along with links to my reviews where available.

As someone who loves exploring & savouring films that're "beyond the canon", I didn't really think twice before expressing my willingness to participate in this exciting adventure. I'd participated in a similar "Beyond the Canon" exercise (conducted by Iain Stott) a few years back, and memories of that were revived in the process.

However, only once I sat down to chalk out my list in Dec of last year, did I realize the daunting task that lay ahead of me. The reason being, a staggering 4,366 films were ruled out from being included in one's submission. The next challenge, of course, was to limit the count of films in one's list to no more than 100.

p.s. On hindsight I'm realizing that there are a few key omissions in my list - either because they skipped my mind or I missed assigning the required importance to them or saw them subsequently. But then, that's part of the fun for a crazy endeavour such as this, and hence that's okay.

Sunday 7 April 2024

Perfect Days [2023]

 Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days – described by the amusing witticism “Zen and the art of public toilet maintenance” – is a film that both enthralled me and filled me with uneasiness. It’s stunningly crafted, with gorgeous audiovisual designs, understated poetic reflections, gently impressionistic style, simmering emotions that vacillated between wonderment and melancholy, embracing of the mundane, and absorbing remembrance of a time when the world was still analogue. The cyclic routine of Hirayama – a cleaner of fancy toilets in an upscale Tokyo district – is brought to life by Kōji Yakusho’s immersive and near-unspoken turn; he loves his morning coffee, has a prized collection of classic rock and pop audio cassettes that he listens to while driving, takes photos of trees with his old film camera during work breaks, has the same dinner every night, visits his favourite bookstore and bar during the weekends (the latter often ends with impromptu gigs), and lives at a small and minimalist home where he tends to his little garden and voraciously reads esoteric books. Its irresistible splendour, however, stood at unsettling odds with its rather problematic romanticization of a blue-collar man who’s employed in a menial job which surely involves unsavoury tasks, long working hours, miniscule salary, lack of employment benefits, and being compelled to live a dreary existence that’s antithetical to pursuing transcendental and eclectic aesthetic standards. The job of a public toilet cleaner anywhere is anything but cute, which made the film’s idealized gaze patronizing and discomfiting. Its maudlin tone and nostalgic indulgences made it tad kitschy too. This dichotomous viewing experience, therefore, made it a paradoxical work could’ve done with imbuing the “perfect” in the title with edgier and more ironic undercurrents.

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

Director: Wim Wenders

Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Existential Drama

Language: Japanese

Country: Japan/Germany

Friday 5 April 2024

There's Still Tomorrow [2023]

 There’s Still Tomorrow is centred on toxic patriarchy, machismo and domestic violence, which’ve been embedded into Italian society across class divides. It’s set in post-WW2 working-class Rome, amidst an atmosphere of scarcity, impoverishment and post-War opportunism. And it’s shot in B/W with neorealism weaved into its aesthetic palette, along with generous splashes of melodrama and humour. One could therefore anticipate a courageous film, for its feminist inquiries, period setting and formal boldness; however, none could’ve guessed that it’d become a smash hit and one of the highest grossers in the history of Italian cinema! The directorial debut of Paola Cortellesi – a popular actress and comedian who, after dabbling in screenwriting in the last few years, finally took the plunge into filmmaking hoping to bring her grandmothers’ stories from the 1940s into life – struck a rare emotional chord, and even sparked dialogues and debates aside from its massive box-office success. The murder of 22-year-old Giulia Cecchettin by her ex-boyfriend, which happened just after its release and sparked a nation-wide outrage, aided its resonance, along with its jaunty and quirky tone that rounded the edges, and the hopeful note of empowerment and liberation that it ended with. Cortellesi played the role of its beleaguered but resilient heroine Delia, a middle-aged woman who’s physically abused by her boorish husband (Valerio Mastandrea) – the movie, in fact, began with an unforeseeable slap –, patronized by her uncouth father-in-law, ignored by her children, and compelled to take multiple odd-jobs while also managing domestic responsibilities. The year, incidentally, is 1946, when voting rights in Italy were extended to women for the first time while holding a referendum to transform the country from monarchy into a republic.

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

Director: Paola Cortellesi

Genre: Black Comedy/Marital Drama/Family Drama/Social Satire

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Wednesday 3 April 2024

20,000 Species of Bees [2023]

 A temporary escape by a city-dwelling family to the countryside during the summer holidays is never just that in cinema, and Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren’s sublime and exquisitely textured debut feature used this framework with nuance and restraint for a richly realized exploration of a kid’s complex tussle with gender identity, alongside the family members’ chaotic reconciliations with it. At one point, the kid’s rugged yet perceptive beekeeper grand-aunt (Ane Gabarain) remarks, to assuage emotional turmoil, that there are 20,000 species of bees and all of them are good; this observation articulated the film’s emphatic advocacy for plurality, diversity and acceptance, conveyed predominantly through women’s gazes and shaped by the director’s extensive interactions with an association of the families of transgender minors. An eight-year-old’s turbulent journey from Aitor, i.e. biological male, via the ambiguous Cocó, to Lucía, thus ultimately establishing her self-expression, unfolded in an absorbingly sunny village in the Basque County, amidst her messy extended family comprising of her loving but harried mother Ane (Patricia López Arnaiz) – desperate to convert her passion for sculpting into full-time vocation, while struggling to come out of the shadows of her late father’s problematic legacy –, grandmother (Itziar Lazkano) with whom Ane has a strained relationship, siblings, aunts, cousins, and the afore-mentioned grand-aunt. Suffused with intimacy and fervid undercurrents, the film was particularly noteworthy for its flurry of moments despite its unhurried pacing, lyrical palette, and fine performances by the adults in the cast led by a captivating Arnaiz. But what superseded everything was Sofía Otero’s extraordinary turn as the vulnerable, conflicted and stubborn trans-girl, for which she – at the age of nine – became the youngest recipient of the Silver Bear at Berlinale.

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

Director: Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren

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

Language: Spanish/Basque

Country: Spain