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Tsotsi (2005)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A great adaption of Athol Fugard's first novel, 21 September 2008

The film is an adaptation of the acclaimed anti-apartheid playwright Irish/South African Athol Fugard's novel Tsotsi. Director Gavin Hood wrote the screenplay based on the novel. The film was a critical success winning the best foreign film Oscar along with other awards at film festivals around the world.

Athol Fugard was called "the greatest active playwright in the English speaking world" by Time magazine in 1985. Why he chose to write Tsotsi as a novel and not a play intrigues me—and why Fugard did not write the screenplay of the film intrigues me even more. An article by Andie Miller "From words into pictures" quoting Fugard gives a clue: D.W. Griffith once described film making as the ability to photograph thought, and novels, with their interior monologues, Fugard agrees, make for better adaptations than plays. This is perhaps part of the reason why the film of Tsotsi works so well.

Gavin Hood's screenplay is a mix of English and "tsotsitaal" (thug language of Soweto). The final product was a modern day adaptation of the novel set in 1958. And it appears that Fugard was happy with Hood's film.

The story of the film Tsotsi revolves around a car-jacking by a black South African thug to steal an up-market sedan from a rich back lady driving it. The woman is wounded and the thug drives off with the car with an infant, unintentionally kidnapped, lying in the back seat. Fugard's novel and Hood's film explore the subsequent changes on the thug's life as he matures into a responsible foster parent, as he re-evaluates his own attitudes to women, and his growing empathy for infant's parents. Racial issues take a back seat, as sociological and psychological changes in the lead character dominate the film's theme. Sit back and reflect—the story need not be set in Soweto, it could happen anywhere.

As Fugard is quoted in Miller's article, the strength of Hood's film is the ability to "externalize the internalization" as Albert Camus would have put it were he to write this review. Tsotsi's star Presley Chweneyagae who was playing his first film role has very few words to speak but the film captures each detail of his emotions, with lots of close-up shots. You come out of the movie thinking that there was a lot spoken, but you realize it was an illusion. All the other characters talk but the main character spoke very little, but his body "spoke" a lot. Now that's interesting cinema.

Fugard/Hood uses a crippled beggar as a pivotal point for a change of heart in a thug who does not seem to know what "decency" means. He kills without reason and cannot accept criticism. The broken legs of a beggar remind the thug of the dog with its backbone broken by the thug's cruel father. Asked by the thug, how the cripple continues to live like this, he gets the answer "Because I like the sun on my face!" This conversation leads to a gradual evolution from heartlessness to the actions of a "decent" human being. Towards the end of the film he removes his dark jacket, only to wear a white shirt, a weak symbolic action the director could have avoided.

The entire film uses actors from South Africa and the film can boast of high standards in production quality. The obvious comparison of the ghettos with the posh housing colonies remind you of the comparison made by the Hungarian director Geza von Redvanyi's 1965 European film Onkel Toms Hütte (Uncle Tom's Cabin) which showed Manhattan's skyscrapers before flashing back to Harriet Beecher Stowe's story set a century earlier that throw a socio-economic perspective to the respective stories for the perceptive viewer.

Director Gavin Hood has drifted into film direction after a stint as a lawyer and then actor. Tsotsi is his third film as a director. He evidently grappled with three different endings of the film: one where the lead character is shot dead, one where he escapes, and a third where he surrenders to the police with the parents of the infant supporting Tsotsi. Each option would provide a definite perspective to the final product. To Hood's credit, the option that he chose is the most interesting one, and one that makes the viewer think.

The film does not glamorize violence and yet provides some top notch sequences such as the robbing of a rich man on a commuter train, the forced breastfeeding of the infant at the point of a gun, or the communication between a crippled beggar and a thug, all of which could match the best films from Hollywood. The film encapsulates the concerns of Africa, orphans seduced into the world of crime and the tenuous family linkages in a modern world where owning material goods become the dreams of poor yet essentially lovely individuals. Hundreds of parents die each day in Africa, some from AIDS, some from other causes, leaving behind potential Tsotsies to populate the skyline. Fugard and Hood underline one statement: under the veneer of each undesirable human being lies a streak of goodness. Only circumstances can bring those streaks of goodness to the fore.

2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
A superhuman and his prodigal son, 24 August 2008

It was easy for Sir Richard Attenborough to make Gandhi (1982)—he was merely narrating a story of a great individual who walked on this planet not so long ago. Comparatively, it must have been a lot tougher for director Feroz Abbas Khan making his debut as a filmmaker to make Gandhi my father, pitting a shriveled anti-hero against an international hero, both of whom were historically real individuals, and ironically father and son. The events in the film are mostly real. Mahatma Gandhi lived as shown in the film, setting high moral standards for the world to follow. Yet these very standards overshadowed the aspirations of his eldest son Harilal to be a lawyer of repute like his father, to complete his education and get a job in India and thus provide income for his nuclear family.

The film does not debunk Gandhi and his ideals. For Gandhi, his mission was larger than his family's aspirations. He loved his family and cared for them, though his thoughts for their appeasement were blinkered by his ideal of caring for the masses. He stood for equality and dignity among all persons and in his view to give special undue advantages to his own son overlooking other deserving persons went against the basis of what he preached. The film looks at an unusual case of parenting—where an idealist parent places receding goalposts for a less-than-brilliant offspring.

The film presents an unusual scenario that happened. A son marries his childhood sweetheart, upsetting his father. The father upsets his son's educational aspirations at several key junctures. The fragile link between a devoted son and a father breaks, as the son wants to stand on his own feet and care for his nuclear family. While the father gradually becomes the father of a nation, the son stumbles in valiant quest for identity and survival. His marriage breaks and seeks solace in religion, buffeting between Islam and Hinduism. Through all his tribulations his link to his mother remains, until she chides him for being drunk.

Feroz Khan is essentially a director of plays making his foray into cinema. He wrote and directed the play Mahatma vs. Gandhi that had considerable impact on the Indian theater community. The play and the consequent film were based on two biographies, one by Chandulal Dalal and another by Nilamben Parekh, The success of the staged play was an evident reason for the commercial Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor to produce this noteworthy film. Every time a good director of plays attempts to direct cinema there is an evidence of a lack of confidence with the medium. Peter Brook is a great director of plays, but less competent as a film director. The opening shots of Khan's film promises great cinema—a derelict Harilal Gandhi is brought to Sion Hospital, Bombay (Mumbai) barely mumbling that his father is Bapu (the popular name of Mahatma Gandhi), father to an entire nation. The hospital authorities do not recognize him to be Mahatma Gandhi's eldest son, dying in poverty and loneliness. Apart from the dramatic opening, the film unfortunately merely presents a great story and some superb exterior shots of father and son meditating in silhouette. For an Indian film it does present some high production qualities that go hand in hand with a lack of interest for details (the clothes of most Indians in the film seem dust-free and freshly laundered, modern hairstyles of actors, and even Shefali Shetty playing Mohandas Gandhi's wife a century ago with plucked eyebrows), the bane of Indian cinema. Since Feroz Khan is a theater personality, he has invested much more effort in working with the actors in developing the characters rather than on cinematic details, somewhat like Sir Attenborough another person who is also a product of theater (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts).

Knowing quite well that to criticize Gandhi in any manner was asking for trouble, even when there was no direct criticism in the film, producer Anil Kapoor took a remarkable decision of not putting up posters of the film at accessible heights in India, fearing that some one could tear the poster or disrespect it intentionally or unintentionally.

With all its mix of greatness and faults, Gandhi, my father throws several questions at the viewer. Is a mother-son bonding stronger than a father-son bonding in parenting? Is one's immediate family less important than humanity at large? Does one seek refuge in religion and alcohol only when worldly troubles are encountered? In this film, Harilal buffeted by adversities runs from one religion to another, while his father quotes scriptures "Forgive them for they know not what they do" when beaten and thrown on the ground by a South African policeman, convinced of the value of religion and convincing others as well.

The film won the Best actress award at the Tokyo International Film Festival for Shefali Shetty (Shah) and an Indian award from critics. Feroze Khan and Anil Kapoor have handled a sensitive subject very well and elicited above-average performances from the ensemble of actors. I do hope the international success of the film paves the way for some able director to film another brilliant Indian play Girish Karnad's Tughlaq some day meeting international quality standards.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Rich in content and relevance, 3 August 2008

Here's a significant black and white film from that only a small section of Kubrick's fans discuss. Here's is a movie made five decades ago that film goers might find relevant even to this day. It was not a runaway box office success. It's an anti-war film that has a political relevance for any country that pushes its foot soldiers to fight suicidal battles for the glory of politicians and generals. And the most surprising element of the film is that the film loosely describes events that actually transpired in France. Consequently this 1957 film was not shown in France until 1975, and in Spain until 1986.

Set in Europe during the First World War, the movie is based on a novel by Henry Cobb. After the book made an impact on film director Stanley Kubrick, the film rights of the book. That act tells you a lot about Kubrick! Cobb's novel describes a historical event that took place because some French generals decided to derive glory for themselves during the war by pushing soldiers in the trenches to attempt a suicidal attack on an enemy position. Once the decision is taken by the generals, the orders are passed down the pecking order, from general to colonel, from colonel to major, from major to corporal. The suicidal strike does take place, some die, and many fall back under the fire from enemy lines.

That's only the framework of the story that Kubrick used to build a film that asks inconvenient questions of the viewer. Kubrick and Cobb underline the difference between the generals who are waltzing with their spouses while the poor foot soldier is worried if he will ever see his wife again. Those in power enjoy, while the poor are pawns caught in the games the powerful play to bring glory to themselves.

Kubrick's taut screenplay shows interaction between a general and the foot soldiers in the trenches. Three of the soldiers the general chooses to speak to are the very same individuals who are made the scapegoats at the military court and shot to death for no fault of theirs. Are all of us who do not enjoy economic freedom, slaves to a system that is not fair and just? The content of this film somehow anticipates Kubrick's and Kirk Douglas' next project, Spartacus, a film that was not planned at the time Paths of Glory was being made.

The film has shades of existential colors. One of the condemned men compares his life and the life of an insect: "See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we'll be dead and it'll be alive. It'll have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I'll be nothing, and it'll be alive." At several points in the film, the screenplay underlines the reality that a junior ranking officer can never blow the whistle on a senior officer's misdeeds and get away with it. The ending of the film that Kubrick was toying with was a happy one—but the lead actor Kirk Douglas prevailed and made the ending a philosophical and a tragic one. This is perhaps one of the few examples in cinema history when an actor contributed so positively to a film. The film with a happy ending could have made more money but wouldn't have been comparable in merit and strength as this one.

The viewers today can approach the film as an intelligent anti-war film in the league of Terrence Mallick's The Thin Red Line. Yet, remove the element of war and what happens in Paths of Glory could happen in an office, in a university, or on the playing field.

If we study the film closely the film it is basically a story of men. But the men are always thinking about women. And a woman's (a German, a representative of the army they were fighting) song in a dehumanizing situation transforms the leering soldiers into men recalling their wives, mothers and daughters. The dehumanizing situation of the woman is not far removed from those of the three innocent soldiers killed by a firing squad. The lady who sang the song became Mrs. Kubrick.

Philosophically the film asks the viewer whether all the various paths of glory in life lead to the grave. And as the Thomas Gray poem that provided the title of the book suggests: death is a great equalizer. The tragic twist at end of the movie underlines this dark facet of life Many critics have praised the performances in this film. Ralph Meeker and Timothy Carey as two of the condemned men and that fascinating actor, Adolph Menjou and George Macready as the Generals provided sterling performances. (Macready's performance in Tora! Tora! Tora! was probably a notch better) Kirk Douglas had a role that any good actor could have taken advantage of—my guess is that had Richard Burton been finally cast in the role, as Kubrick initially planned, the film would have been richer. But then if Douglas was not there, we might have lost the tragic end of the film. (Douglas' finest acting credentials surfaced in my opinion in the little praised 1969 film of Elia Kazan called The Arrangement.) Paths of Glory is a film that never won an Oscar or a major film festival award. Yet, it marked the beginning of a series of great films by Kubrick. To Kirk Douglas' credit he is quoted as saying, way back in 1969 "There's a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don't have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now" How true!

Babel (2006/I)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Lack of empathy or a problem of communication?, 27 July 2008

There is a revival of interest worldwide in making feature films that comprise several disparate stories that link up with a common thought or use a common location. This is now called the portmanteau film. Such films have sporadically surfaced over the decades but their appeal seems to be limited to the serious film goer. Babel belongs to that odd genre stitching together several stories, one taking place in rural Morocco, another set in towns on the Mexico-USA border, and a final one in urban Japan. Understandably you hear five languages--Berber, Arabic, English, Japanese and Spanish—with subtitles to help the viewer, not to mention "sign" language used by the hearing impaired.

To understand the film one needs to know the historical meaning of Babel. Babel is a city described in Christian and Jewish scriptures relating to King Nimrod (The Book of Genesis). In that book, Babel was a city that united humanity by speaking a single language. But the King made the tower not for praising God but for the glory of man. The holy book says God was angry and confused the languages of the people, who eventually abandoned the building of the tower and went off to various far away lands because they could no longer understand each other's language.

A simplistic approach to enjoying the film would be to evaluate all the actions of different individuals and the way each action impacts someone else in the world. In that perspective, the benign action of a Japanese tourist gifting a rifle to a tourist guide in Morocco, can lead to USA mistaking an accidental shooting by young boys for an act of international terrorism, while an American's refusal to be empathetic to his maid's request for a short leave to attend a marriage leads to deaths and loss of livelihoods for innocent but economically poor Mexicans. Lives are indeed connected in this global village of ours.

However, another approach to evaluate the film would be to compare the interpersonal relationships of individuals from the developed world with those of the underdeveloped world. There is disconnection between husbands and wives (the US couple who cannot communicate to each other and reconcile the loss of third child until a worse tragedy overtakes them, a Japanese couple whose lives are a wreck in spite of riches ultimately leading to the wife's suicide) in the developed world. In the underdeveloped world, family ties are comparatively stronger (a Mexican housemaid uses all her resources to attend a close family wedding throwing basic intelligence to the wind, a Moroccan goat herder while chastising his three growing children who are inquisitive about sex, reinforces traditional family values of respect for each other's privacy).

Yet another approach to the film is to analyze the varied attitudes of the personalities. It is interesting to note the bewilderment of an American man when a poor Arab refuses his money for helping his wounded wife. For an Arab, it is an insult to take money for helping someone in distress. The lack of communication is not limited to language (Arab vs. Berber vs. English vs. Spanish vs. sign language) or disability to speak (physical dumbness) but the lack of empathy (US officials manning a border crossing or the rich American putting his priorities on his personal worries over those of his less affluent Mexican domestic help). For the French tourists, their own safety and comfort takes priority over the problems of an American couple in distress. The film goes beyond the demands on people to listen to others; it grapples with the lack of empathy in relationships. Would the Mexican nanny have been more forceful in her phone communication with her employer if her financial security was better? Are our communications with people governed by economics? Hypothetically, if the entire world was financially secure and equal as in the days of King Nimrod—-there would be only one language and perhaps we would understand each other better.

The film has won accolades for the director Iñárritu but the writer of the script, Guillermo Arriaga, deserves equal credit. It is unfortunate if reports are to be believed that a spat between the two resulted in the director keeping the scriptwriter away from the Cannes festival where the director took all the credit. The film has howlers. For instance, a helicopter with a Red Cross in Morocco makes an appearance, when anyone in the Arab world knows that the Red Cross is replaced by the Red Crescent in that part of the world. This trivia probably ironically reflects the basic storyline of Babel.

At the end of the film the viewer is nudged by the director to listen more to others. The film reiterates that the world has come to a situation where present day Nimrods can be pleased with the progress in the world and build "towers of Babel" but this progress is negated of we do not try to understand each other. The film clearly underlines one fact—-no individual is bad and that everyone means well. Yet there is strife because everyone is living their lives for their own ends.

My guess is that director Iñárritu took more than a handful of cues for this film from the 2005 Hollywood portmanteau film Nine Lives directed by Rodrigo Garcia and produced by Iñárritu himself. Garcia's film is more professional (it won awards at Locarno festival) and touches on several issues presented in Babel. But Babel with its Cannes award (interestingly the film was co-financed by the French) was marketed better than Nine Lives worldwide. If you liked Babel, see Garcia's (Garcia is the son of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez) film Nine Lives. You will then know how Iñárritu apparently worked on Arriaga's script to make similar to Nine Lives, the film he had produced a year earlier! To Iñárritu's credit, he thanks Rodrigo Garcia and the brilliant Mexican director Carlos Reygadas in the end-credits of Babel.

Repentance (1984)
6 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
Can you bury past evils?, 21 July 2008

All repressed societies tend look back at the horrors of the past with a twinkle in the eye. Tengiz Abuladdze's Monanieba (Repentance) uses black comedy, satire, allegory, magical realism, and surrealistic dream sequences, as the stones to tread on, offering the movies' viewers disturbing images to recall historical events of their own lifetime.

In a small town in Georgia, a mayor by the name of Varlam Aravidze dies. Eulogies are mouthed by very important and least important denizens of how great an individual he was. But his corpse keeps surfacing in his house, exhumed by unknown forces. Eventually, a woman baker who bakes the best cakes in town (with delicious church steeples as icing) is found to be the one who keeps exhuming the body each time it is buried and reburied. Three-fourths of the film revolves around on her motives for repeatedly exhuming the body. This is the section of the film that re-evaluates the tyrannical life of the dead man. The dead man's son Abel is reluctant to admit his father's evil acts but the dead man's grandson is ashamed of his grandfather's acts. The baker who had exhumed the body was directly affected by Varlam's tyranny and says she will not let the dead man be buried and is ready to accept the consequences. Her strange actions and what motivates them are allegorical of what Georgians endured during Stalin's rule in Soviet Russia. The three generations of Varlam's family depict the changing values within Soviet Russia, with winds of Perestroika and Glasnost blowing on the faces of the younger generations.

Repentance is the last film of the Georgian filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze, who died soon after the film was released. Repentance, like Klimov's Agoniya represents the Soviet movies that were released within Russia as Gorbachev unveiled Perestroika and Glasnost, allowing audiences to reflect on issues that they never dared to discuss in the open earlier.

The lead evil character Varlam Aravidze (translated as Varlam "nobody", a name chosen to escape the censors) is an amalgam of Hitler (moustache), Mussolini (black shirt), Stalin (haircut) and Lavrenti Beria (pince-nez spectacles). It is a political parable on the evils of dictators, when small-town bureaucrats use cunning and deceit to crush cultural values of art, and ethical values of religion, law and marriage. Historically, Stalin and Beria crushed the national spirit of Georgians targeting the intelligentsia and the Church. Abuladze was among the few that survived.

Repentance is a critique of Soviet history and assumes greater importance because it was made by a Soviet director and released in Soviet Union. The finest sequences of the film that would not be lost on East European audiences, in my opinion, were of a mother and child search for names of loved ones etched on logs that have been recently brought from Siberia, because political prisoners communicated with their families using this unusual method, and the final sequence of an old woman searching for the church (which has obviously been destroyed) in the empty town, a simple sequence that signifies hope for the future.

Death and consequent burial often indicates forgiveness. Didn't Mark Antony imply this when he said the dead is "oft interred with their bones" over Caesar's corpse? Abuladze's heroine Ketavan keeps exhuming the dead and buried corpse to expose the misdeeds of a despotic Stalinist hero (recalling Alea's bureaucrat in the annals of Cuban cinema) while baking cakes with symbolic church steeples on the icing (reference to the deep loss of theism and orthodox religion in Stalinist attempts to replace religion with science). Ketavan's father is an artist with features that resemble Western images of Christ. The evil figures relish hogging the church steeples on cake icing and cooked fish (a typical Christian symbol).

Abuladze's film approaches "repentance" by looking at evil squarely in the eye and not by sweeping it under the carpet. Interestingly this is the very approach that Hans-Jurgen Syberberg took while analyzing the rise of Hitler in his superb yet controversial 10-hour long documentary Hitler-A film from Germany. Abuladze's cinema like most Soviet filmmakers (Klimov, Tarkovsky, Kozintsev, Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, Zvyagintsev, etc.) is built on values that Soviet citizens imbibed through the Russian Orthodox Church.

In Repentance, the new generation seems to accept the misdeeds of their tyrannical family members and seek repentance, while the older generation prefers to go to jail by exhuming tyrannical "heroes" and exposing their misdeeds. Both types of repentance make the film an interesting tool to study history of Soviet Russia. What is remarkable is that just as a parallel to the contents of the film, the directors and writers of Georgian cinema exhume the misdeeds of the past, and the new generation of film studio authorities and censors "repent" somewhat by releasing these films in theaters in Soviet Russia (including Georgia) and other nearby countries.

In Abuladze's film, surrealistic and satirical dream images of men putting flowers in a grand piano combine with images of a blindfolded woman with scales (symbolizing justice) playing the piano before being led way by a man in black, with white gloves. There is black comedy as tortured prisoners "name names" so that no one will be left without being a suspect and the jails will be full of suspects.

Abuladze has much to convey and at times seems to go over the top in his efforts to poke fun at tyranny. This is perhaps why Abuladze loses out to the more subtle works of Paradjanov (the most talented Georgian filmmaker), Tarkovsky, Kozintsev and Klimov, while driving home a similar message to the viewers. The cinema of Abuladze is more direct, while Tarkovsky and Kozintsev more circumspect and open-ended. But Abuladze's cinema is, without doubt, film making that will unsettle a viewer to think about life after the film ends. The question each viewer should ask is: Where are the Varlams that we encounter in life and can we rest by burying them?

Rasputin (1981)
8 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
An intriguing film, 30 June 2008

Many may not be aware that this film was considered "worthless" in the Soviet Union after it was made and shelved for years. Director Elem Klimov made several changes to the 1975 original version and it was ultimately released in 1981 and shown at the Venice Film Festival 1982 (where it won the FIPRESCI prize) out of competition.

The original name of the film was Agony (Agoniya) and not Rasputin, a name by which the film was marketed for a while. The title Agony was evidently in line with what the director had in mind. If we were to accept that argument, was the director's original film about the spiritual agony of the controversial holy man? Or was it meant to reflect the agony of Czar Nicholas, who could not go against the Czarina's total faith in Rasputin? Was the title meant to depict the agony of a great nation afflicted by the abysmal corruption among the monarchists who were there to make money while the poor starved and the indecisive Czar painted flowers to distract himself from the more pressing political problems (One fine sequence in the film soon after the Duma castigates the Czar shows the silent but mentally tortured Czar, with tear filled eyes looking for comfort in the sympathetic gaze of his loyal butler). Was the title also to depict the agony of the Russian Orthodox Church which was suddenly losing its grip on the worshippers with the rise of the Bolsheviks and "holy men" like Rasputin? We will never know unless we see the original version the director made. My guess is the director wanted to combine all these agonies and that Rasputin, the individual, dominated only a segment of the agonizing events. What we do know is that this film and its many versions that were put out by Soviet and the post-Perestroika Russian authorities were at no point of time expected to depict Rasputin as the sole villain that led to the to the 1916 October Revolution.

The film does offer several insights into the enigmatic character of Rasputin. He did indeed accept bribes from those wanting favors from the Czar, while the film distinctly indicates that it is debatable that he loved money and wealth. He was least concerned about getting rich, because he could get what he desired without pelf. Rasputin had an ability to foresee the future but could totally misread his dreams (The film includes an interesting sequence where he rolls in a pool of stagnant water, as he can foresee his fall from grace at the Czar's palace). He could perform small miracles, could utter saintly statements ("the cowl does not make a monk") and believed like a village bumpkin that you could sin and then start life with a clean slate! No wonder the Russian Orthodox Church saw in him an evil rascal. What happens to him after the Church traps him is totally unclear in the version of the film I saw. Was he castrated? Klimov's Rasputin is unusual--he is an animal waiting to ravish a beautiful woman one moment, and then a religious zealot throwing out the woman for having tried to seduce him the very next moment.

I am convinced that Klimov's film is less about Rasputin than about the people that surrounded him. Take the Czar, for one.

Klimov's cinematic essay shows him scurrying away from a meeting on war preparations in dark passageways behind wall-maps worried equally about his haemophiliac son Alexei, the crown prince who is depicted as a brat. The personal worries of the Czar (in the photography dark room, in his relationship with the Orthodox Church, his empathies for his worried wife doting on her children) have been given importance, unlike Franklin Schaffner's Nicholas and Alexandra that seemed to focus on the Czarina (Janet Suzman) more than the Czar. Interestingly, Klimov's film downplays the Czarina's role focusing more on the Czar.

Klimov's range of agonies does not end here. Even the assassins of Rasputin are agonizingly guilt-ridden. Most Russians are Church-going Orthodox Christians and Klimov understood his audience quite well. The dubious role of the Orthodox Church in those troubled times are pitch forked into prominence—the film shows the burial of Rasputin officiated by the Church in the presence of the Czar.

Finally, Klimov spliced documentary footage to show the agonies of the common man at every given interval to add validity to his essay on the varied agonies he captures on celluloid.

While Klimov's film shows patches of brilliance, one needs to recall that he initially made his mark as filmmaker decades before Agoniya having made remarkable satirical comedies like Adventures of a dentist. (I have yet to see the latter film; however, what both films have in common is that wonderful Russian actress Alisa Frejnlikh, who played the Stalker's wife in Tarkovsky's Stalker.) His last few films Agoniya and Idi o simotri (Go and see/Come and see) proved that he was now looking at life grimly. He was then working closely with his wife, actor and director Larisa Shepitko and was reported to be a devoted husband. Equally enigmatic is the role of Lady Vyrubova played by Alisa Frejnlikh. What was the relationship between Rasputin and Vyrubova? Probably the answers lie in the director's cut of Agoniya, which is possibly lost for ever.

I was privileged to have met Klimov at Hyderabad, India, in 1986 during a Film Festival. It was after his wife's death. I recall that he was withdrawn and less than forthcoming to questions. Was he afraid to talk? Was he a genius who was never allowed to prove it, because of political pressures? This is probably why both Agoniya and Klimov remain enigmatic for me to this day.

Yella (2007)
23 out of 35 people found the following review useful:
Offering depth beyond the life and death matrix, 16 June 2008

Germany's Christian Petzold belongs to the new breed of European directors that loves to make films layered with meaning for the astute viewer. Russia's Andrei Zvyagintsev mesmerized serious film-goers with his multi-layered films that urge film-goers to approach cinema as one would approach a challenging and intelligent puzzle to derive maximum entertainment. Spain's multi-talented Alejandro Amenabar has proved that a holistic mix of good screenplay, music and direction can result in films that recall the precocious brilliance of the young Orson Welles' Citizen Kane made so many decades ago. These are films that are delectable for the intelligent and patient viewer who does not demand to be spoon-fed by the director. Members of this exclusive club of directors include Austria's Michael Haneke and Finland's Aki Kaurismaki. In Yella, Petzold throws morsels of visual treats at the viewer. The attentive viewer will ask for more, for the less attentive it will be an invitation to snore.

"Yella" is the name of the main character of the film. (Yella is creatively linked to Wim Wender's key character in his film Alice in the Cities, a character without a mother moving from city to city.). Petzold's Yella has a father but the mother is either absent or not discussed, not far removed from Wender's Yella.

Yella wears red most of the time. Now bright red is worn by many women in Europe but the color acquires a different meaning when you realize its political association with East Germany. Petzold's Yella lives in former East Germany, full of birds, trees, rustic atmosphere and warmth. Petzold's Yella yearns to make big bucks in the former West Germany, less populated, richer and more corrupt at corporate and personal levels.

Halfway into the film, there is a suicidal motor accident. What follows teases the mind of an attentive viewer. A desperate woman boards a train with empty compartments. A male person peeks into her compartment but leaves her alone. Much later, she realizes that the train has reached its destination and has been parked in a yard. As she strolls into town, her eyes meet with those of a woman, who is apparently well off financially and secure in an urban house. This was in my view the most powerful and enigmatic sequence in the film. Who is this woman? Is it Yella comparing what she would be like in future? When her future benefactor turns out to be a crook, Yella "helps" him. Yella herself slowly transforms into a crooked woman as a chameleon would in new surroundings, all the while yearning for the old life of her father and financially crippled husband.

The second half of the film with its almost empty hotels provide a clue to the film, just as Amenabar progressively provided several clues in his well-made ghost movie "The Others" that there is something unreal. Can characters enter locked hotel rooms, eat food and disappear? Would characters who once stalked Yella be transformed into characters that Yella would herself pursue in dark alleyways outside her hotel instead of hiding from them? Who is alive and who is dead? What is real and what is imaginary? Why is the sale price of the husband's business, eerily the same figure as the figure quoted to purchase computers? You are coaxed by your own inquisitiveness to go backwards in the film to figure that out. Somewhere floating in the water after the accident you can spot an empty can of Coca-cola, a symbol of western materialism and prosperity.

There are aspects of the film that bothers me. Why did Yella leave her husband? Because he was obsessed with her? Why is the mother figure absent? Is true love absent? Yella is portrayed by actor Nina Hoss and the performance won her a Silver Bear for the Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival. The film's editor, cinematographer, and director—all three have been separately honored with minor awards for their contributions in this film. The surprise for me was that the story was written by first time writer Simone Baer, basically an established casting director. It is remarkable that Baer and Petzold should weave an interesting film around personal guilt, aspirations and quality of life. I was intrigued how a male director could delve inside the female psyche so well until I was amused to spot that the original writer was Simone Baer, a woman.

Yella is portrayed by actor Nina Hoss and the performance won her a Silver Bear for the Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival. The film's editor, cinematographer, and director—all three have been separately honored with minor awards for their contributions in this film. The surprise for me was that the story was written by first time writer Simone Baer, basically an established casting director. It is remarkable that Baer and Petzold should weave an interesting film around personal guilt, aspirations and quality of life. I was intrigued how a male director could delve inside the female psyche so well until I was amused to spot that the original writer was Simone Baer, a woman.

Petzold and the "club" of like-minded European directors invite the audience to think and reflect about themselves after they view these movies. These films offer interesting views on politics, ethics, business and love. They may or may not be obvious. It is for the viewer to spot them. They are not served on a platter. The story on screen remains as a pivotal point for the debate to begin among viewers. These films urge you to consider your own situation in life and reflect how you would react under similar circumstances shown in these films.

14 out of 18 people found the following review useful:
A thriller that queries: Where do sunflowers face in the night?, 26 April 2008

"When the sunflower plant, Helianthus annuus, is in the bud stage, the head and the leaves do indeed track the path of the Sun. The genus name Helianthus is from the Greek helios "sun" and anthos "flower". Interestingly, however, and contrary to popular belief, once the massive topmost flower opens into the radiance of yellow petals, it slows and then stops moving, ending up permanently facing east." ---Solar flower, New Scientist, 3 August 2002

Why am I quoting this interesting trivia? Sunflower buds, we all know, keep moving but a stage comes when it does not move any further. Why am I discussing the night? That's the name of the film. The only teeny-weeny bit about sunflowers in the film But then the sun is not relevant for the night, is it? The near oxy-moronic title give a life to the movie after the film is over—in many ways similar to the disturbing Austrian-French film "Cache" made by Michael Haneke. For a cineaste who can sit through the film right up to the end of the film, the real punch line from the director comes in the form of an audible TV program statement about bees in a beehive, that do not attack unless provoked. This is an innocuous fact but is loaded with meaning in the context of the film's ending. This is a statement heard by the unpunished rapist on the prowl.

The Spanish director Sánchez-Cabezudo's film is based on his own script. (He is the latest among formidable Spanish directors making good films based on their own scripts, following the tradition of the gifted directors, Amenabar and Almodovar). Most viewers would appreciate or find good entertainment in the film while mulling over in the different non-linear narrative segments of the story of rape, vigilante killing, extra-marital sex, corruption, village vs urban comparisons, love for a dead spouse. Each segment provides a different Rashomon-type perspective of sections of the same story from a different angle, as seen by a different character. The director uses a technique used in modern pulp literature most recently used by Dan Browne for his book The Da Vinci Code. While the technique might baffle a few, most viewers would derive entertainment as they are constantly challenged to derive the entertainment.

The film offers dollops of entertainment ice-cream that most viewers want—-mystery, exploration of new found caves, a rape scene, a brief scene of violent death, and some endearing performances from the actors. If presented as a straight chronological narrative—the story could be made into a typical Hollywood thriller. But why is it different? It is different because of its end.

That is where the director and screenplay writer scores a bull's-eye—for a patient viewer who does not leave the theater once he sees the end credits begin to roll. The comment about the bees drive home the uncomfortable, parallel moral issues that Haneke raised in "Cache." Europeans and many of us prefer to retain status quo rather than rake up disturbing moral and social issues. It is convenient for us to do so. It is not because the issues are resolved. In this film the main culprit, a rapist is never brought to justice. If an attempt was made to bring him to justice, three persons would go behind bars for manslaughter, a homicide would surface, the reputation of an erring wife would become public knowledge, a good policeman's daughter would find out that her husband and father of her unborn baby is a corrupt cop and so on.

The film is, therefore, not merely a film to be appreciated for its structure but its underpinning question on morality. The film shows us that evil is not limited to a rapist but to the best of us. A good man could do evil in a fraction of a second. And to defend lesser evils, the bigger evil gets away. Only to scar our conscience for ever. Spanish cinema is on the move this decade. Sánchez-Cabezudo's film is good but the post-script in his screenplay is truly formidable. There indeed comes a time these days when "sunflowers" mature, stop turning towards the sun and only face the east.

Because it is convenient!

Sometimes in April (2005) (TV)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Different from and superior to "Hotel Rwanda"- and a film that ought to be widely seen, 10 April 2008

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Opening quote from the film) After I saw the Hollywood's multiple Oscar nominated film "Hotel Rwanda" (2004) in a regular theater, I could stand up and be counted as one who thought that that the noble efforts of a hotel worker (based on a real person who worked at Hotel des Mille Collines) to save so many lives and worth emulating, if we were ever to be in his shoes.

Just a few days ago I chanced to see "Sometimes in April" (2005), on the Rwandan massacre on television's HBO channel, released a year after "Hotel Rwanda." You begin to wonder why so few have written about this wonderful little film made for TV, partly with US financial support. This small film is undoubtedly far superior to the acclaimed Hollywood product in both content and style, even though the subject matter of both films pertain to the real events that surround the genocide in Rwanda.

Yet the two movies are as different as chalk and cheese. To any discerning viewer "Hotel Rwanda" would be easily identifiable as a commercial effort using "star" power of Don Cheadle, Nick Nolte and Joaquin Phoenix to highlight one of history's darkest chapters by developing a "feel good" screenplay that builds on the typical Hollywood mantra of success: an individual's heroic acts against all odds. It won some Oscar nominations (two of those were predictably for acting), a minor Toronto festival award and an Irish award. But the film did not make the competition grade of Cannes, Berlin or Venice.

Then a good one year later, along comes "Sometimes in April" made with one big star name Debra Winger and loads of African actors. The Africans are so realistic in their roles that Cheadle's laudable effort pales in comparison. In contrast to the Cheadle film, "Sometimes in April" was nominated for the Golden Bear at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival, won the best film award at the Durban International Film Festival, and a minor award in Norway. What is startlingly different is the mature screenplay and direction that approaches the genocide not merely by concentrating on individual heroism but discussing some key facets on genesis of the genocide, the international reaction to the genocide and the aftermath of the genocide when the international community woke up to the genocide and brought a few perpetrators to face justice.

What makes Raoul Peck's "Sometimes in April" tick? Minutes into the film and the viewer will realize the scriptwriter knows Africa well. Radio is the mass medium in most parts of Africa, not the newspapers or the TV. If a popular radio host decides to call the Tutsi community "cockroaches" that need to be exterminated thousands of listeners will accept the verdict because they have no access to another viewpoint. That is precisely what happened. That's the power of radio in most parts of Africa. Hate spewed out of a radio station and countries that had the power to jam those broadcasts, refrained from doing so in the name of "free speech" and "democracy" as death tolls rose to 8000 victims a day. Western nations and the UN did intervene—only to rescue expatriates, Tutsis did not matter. Christian priests in the film are shown as reluctant collaborators as they are forced to identify Tutsis taking refuge with them so that other Tutsi's might survive the carnage. The high point of the movie for me was when Hutu girl students of a convent school collectively refuse to be saved from death and stand as one only to be butchered when vigilantes try to identify and kill Tutsi students. And this is not fiction but a fact. (For those who care to read about the subject I suggest Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire's book "Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.") How else is "Sometimes in April" different from "Hotel Rwanda"? The core strength of the film lies in its attempt to analyze the effect of the difficult period on Rwandans right up to the recent past. The film examines the conflict of interest of Hutu soldiers who carry death lists of good Tutsis as good soldiers. It examines the conflicts of families with spouses from the two communities. The film explores family bonds that rise above career interests (here those of a radio host). There are shots of women who prefer to blow themselves up than be raped again and again. Finally, the film looks at how individuals facing trial accept their guilt—a very rare example in cinema.

The director of "Sometimes in April", Raoul Peck is an unusual filmmaker from Haiti switching between documentary and feature films with remarkable felicity. He grew up in Zaire (Congo) and then lived in France. Peck served as Haiti's Minister of Culture similar to the honor accorded by Greece to late actor Melina Mercouri. Peck's first feature film feature L'homme sur les quais (1993) (The Man by the Shore) was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1993. His documentary film "Lumumba" has been hailed by critics and I look forward to see it. He has already won a lifetime award from the Human Rights Watch in New York and the Nestor (cinematographer of Mallick, Rohmer and Truffaut) Almendros prize. Evidently Peck is a director worth noting.

It is interesting to note that the last words that flash on the screen as the film ends are "Never forget". I will not forget this film and what this film has to offer for any viewer. One should not forget the bigger picture—Peck's film is not about Rwanda alone, it is about human actions and the consequences anywhere. That's what makes the film interesting. Thank you, HBO. Thank you, Mr Peck.

The Circle (2000)
3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Interesting film that calls for close evaluation, 29 March 2008

After making two feature films and many short films on children, director Jafar Panahi makes a film The Circle where he deals with the condition of a wider gamut of the female gender (a girl child, a girl toddler left behind for adoption. a wide-eyed teenage girl, a pregnant mother whose spouse has been executed, a prostitute, the only wife of an expatriate doctor, the less-preferred first wife of a husband with two wives, a grandmother who wishes for a male grandchild, a possibly unmarried mother who can no longer support her girl child) in Iran.

"The circle" begins and ends with a name of a woman--Solmaz Gholami--being called out through a door hatch. Interestingly, the film never introduces us to this character. It is apparently the name of a woman who has given birth to a girl child. The film introduces us to the grandmother of the child who is informed by the nurse that the newborn is a girl. The hatch belongs to a white door of an operation theater in a hospital.

The film ends with the same name being called out from a similar hatch of another door—this time a prison door of a room that holds most of the female adult characters in the film rounded up for varied offenses. Implicitly the film states that women face discrimination from birth until death in Iran. Evidently someone had stated a white lie earlier that the unseen Ms Gholami was to have a baby boy after an ultrasound test of the foetus. The revised information of the arrival of the girl child upsets the grandmother who wants a boy grandchild.

In between the opening of the two hatches, the roving hand-held camera underlines the state of an unusual group of women in Teheran, without IDs or male support evading police and eve-teasing males. The viewer is informed that most of the women (except the grandmother and two children) have either been paroled from prison or have escaped prison and are therefore on the run from the cops. Their original crimes are never stated. One woman is picked up by the police while she is making a call from a public phone booth. Once imprisoned, the women are afraid of the blot in their lives to the extent that they hide it from their husbands! Were they imprisoned for sexual offenses? None of the women seem to be politically active. However, the film underlines one fact—-had they either a husband or a father, or even a student ID, they would have no problem. Some of these women who want to smoke a cigarette. They can only do so when the men (in the film, a policeman) are smoking in public!

Mr Panahi is able to present interesting aspects of intra-female bonding in Iran. Some women travel the extra mile to help other women in distress. Even a prostitute helps another woman to escape the police. Then there are women who do not help others because they do not want their husbands to know that they were once behind bars. A mother leaves her girl child in the street in the hope that a stranger will provide a better life for her child. Yet they do not wallow in self pity. Who are these women with no husbands and having shady pasts? They are definitely not the typical Iranian woman.

Any woman or sensitive man could be seduced by the subject of the film. However, the film ought to be evaluated beyond the obvious feminist issues—-it is a study of individuals born into any society that deprives them of equal privileges. One of the reasons for my argument is that many men shown in the film are caring men who help women in trouble rather than become their exploiters. Some policemen shown are corrupt, but some are decent chaps. Many men in the film do respect women. There are also intolerant men who are ready to kill their sister who is pregnant without a husband. "The circle" cannot be a feminist film merely just because the female form covered in burkha/chador indicates repression. The film is more humanist than feminist—which the director has claimed in interviews. One tends to agree with Mr Panahi on this point.

However, it is a fact that to abort a child in Iran is a difficult proposition as it would be in most countries today. It would be difficult in most countries for any young girl without an ID to take a long distance bus ride all alone in the night. Iranian women enjoy more relative freedom than their counterparts in Saudi Arabia—where women cannot even drive a car! Panahi's women in "The Circle" seem to be women who were incarcerated for some "unknown" crimes—-never clearly elucidated in the film except in the case of the prostitute. If they were political prisoners, there is no clue except that a pregnant woman states that her spouse has been recently executed for a crime. There is a wide eyed girl who has never seen her village in recent years, who makes the viewer wonder why she was imprisoned in the first place. Panahi's film seduces the viewer, until you begin to wonder, if even the fact that the film was banned in Iran, is a viewer-seduction tool (almost all good Iranian films are banned in Iran, even though they have no sex or violence, but are possibly remotely critical of the present regime). The film was shot in Teheran and evidently the government did not have any problems at that time with the script. And then, bingo, it gets banned!

"The circle" is an interesting film that offers considerable fodder for thought. As cinema, it is without doubt an intelligent work and deserved the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival. Yet it is a film that calls for close evaluation by an astute mind rather than the heart of an impartial impressionable viewer.

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