Monday, 25 February 2013

"Bonsái" [2011 Chile]

Young directors like Cristián Jiménez are proof that cinema is alive and well in Chile, and Latin America in general. "Bonsái" may only be the second feature directed and scripted by Jiménez, but his ambitiousness is already plain to see.

Delightfully, like some of the very best films from the French New Wave, Bonsái can be appreciated at different levels. You could simply choose to follow the storyline for what it is - at face value, it is a slow but engaging film, with deadpan humour and a sense of irony. Or you may want to delve a bit deeper, and rejoice at its intricate juxtaposition of timelines, not only to make a connection with the film's cryptic title, but also the psychology of human relationships seen through the words of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and interpreted by Alejandro Zambra, upon whose novel the film is based. It's ultimately about the protagonist's existential angst - portrayed in not as much the intensity of an Antonioni, but perhaps, a less talkative Woody Allen, if there could be one.

Relying on the storyline can have its shortcomings too - especially if it is undermined at the very outset through an explicit spoiler, when the narrator says, "At the end of the film - Emilia dies, and Julio doesn't die. The rest, is fiction." Set in parallel time frames, eight years apart, we witness Julio (Diego Noguera), first as a literature undergraduate, and later as a wannabe writer, not only fumbling through life like everybody else, but also indecisive due to his fear of making mistakes, even if he may claim otherwise. He's nevertheless knowledgeable, and appreciates the virtues of failure when he admits to Blanca (Trinidad González), a neighbour and some-time lover, "...failure is underestimated." As befitting his character, Julio becomes a writer only through chance. He is initially offered the job of transcribing a manuscript, but when the novelist changes his mind after finding a cheaper hand, Julio pretends to Blanca that he's still working with the novelist, and forges a manuscript of his own creation, using episodes of his youth spent with his girlfriend from college Emilia (Nathalia Galgani), as his material. He wouldn't have ventured into writing a book otherwise. But by writing, he will discover the reason his relationship with Emilia ended, and also the depth in Proust's words, which he had read aloud on several occasions, albeit casually, while in bed with Emilia...

The film uses the hand-crafted appeal of a bonsai tree as metaphor to subtly illustrate the protagonist's nature of projecting an image of himself that isn't strictly true - just as a bonsai is shaped into form by mimicking the effects of a particular climate, his social interactions too were based upon well intentioned 'lies'. Whether it is in claiming to have read Proust's works, which helps him get close to an attractive classmate, or in pretending to transcribe the manuscript of a famous novelist, in order to retain his neighbour's interest, Julio's pretensions, while trying to please others, has stunted his own personality. He remains a bonsai so long as he is rooted to his insecurities, constrained by invisible strings that prevent his relationships from flourishing.

TR: One of the ways director Jiménez succeeds with the film, is in the manner in which he recalls events from eight years past using selective memory - details are either ignored, or left unsaid, giving the viewer the luxury of filling in the blanks. There is very little film wasted by Jiménez in conveying his message, and there's a purpose behind every scene and chapter shown. The performances by the small but dedicated cast is also exceptional, and aided by the ingeniuty of Alejandro Zambra's novel and Cristián Jiménez's screenplay, the film is Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link


The Nudity: Trinidad González, Nathalia Galgani, Gabriela Arancibia, and Diego Noguera
The film features some beautifully shot, tasteful scenes of nudity while observing Julio (Diego Noguera) and his interactions with college girlfriend Emilia (Nathalia Galgani), present-day neighbour Blanca (Trinidad González), and Emilia's close friend and flatmate Bárbara (Gabriela Aranciba).

Trinidad González, Nathalia Galgani, Gabriela Arancibia, and Diego Noguera in Bonsái


Friday, 22 February 2013

Scenes from "Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum" [W.Germany 1975]

- It's Neuer Deutscher Film time..!
And I'll start the filmography of Volker Schlöndorff - one of the important directors of New German Cinema, not with his Oscar-winning Die Blechtrommel (that comes later), but a slightly lesser known, but equally respected classic, "Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum" [Eng. Title: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum]. Based on a novel by Nobel prize-winning author Heinrich Böll, it is a scathing critique of the culture of sensationalism in the gutter-press - as relevant today as it was during the seventies. The film was also co-directed by Schlöndorff's then wife, Margarethe von Trotta, who will soon go on to become an accomplished director in her own right.

Katharina Blum - a housekeeper, meets Ludwig Götten at a Cologne carnival party, falls in love at first sight, and also brings him home for the night. The following morning, armed police break into her apartment looking for Ludwig, accusing him of being a terrorist (and possible R.A.F member) recently involved in a bank robbery. Not finding him there, they arrest and interrogate Katharina instead. The story is sensationally covered by a tabloid newspaper, and served with lies and half-truths fabricated by Werner Tötges, its overzealous and sleazy reporter. He blatantly intrudes upon Katharina's privacy by tricking her acquaintances and relatives into revealing more than they need to, and spicing it up with his own prejudiced views and venom-soaked accusations - tarring her reputation, and painting her as a picture of evil who works hand-in-glove with Ludwig, as part of a wider communist conspiracy. He even harasses her ill mother recovering in intensive care, and manipulates her confused words. Katharina's employer and lawyer, Hubert Blorna and wife Trude will also be ostracised by the press.

Katharina reaches a tipping-point when her mother dies in hospital - possibly as a result of the harassment, and Ludwig is also captured, only to discover that he was merely a army drop-out on the run, with money stolen from his regiment's pay-packet. She invites reporter Tötges over for an exclusive interview, and shoots him dead after he makes sexual advances. Unlike the novel, the film ends with a hypocritical speech made by the owner of the newspaper at Tötge's funeral, extolling the sanctity and virtues of 'freedom of the press' in a modern democracy.

The Background - Heinrich Böll:
A Nobel laureate and one of the most celebrated modern writers from Germany, Heinrich Böll was a deeply pacifist champion of civil liberties, and a sympathiser and supporter of defectors from eastern block countries. But his criticism of the government's policies against the militant R.A.F (Red Army Faction) during the early seventies caused an uproar. The novel "Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann" (The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, or: how violence develops and where it can lead) is based on his own experiences, following his vilification by the tabloid press for writing an article in a magazine, urging the government to initiate a dialogue with the Baader Meinhoff group. He filed a lawsuit against the newspaper when it accused him of being the spiritual 'father' of R.A.F, and after having lost the case, poured his angst into creating the novel.

In my view, this is an appropriate time to revisit the film, because the atmosphere in which it was made closely resembles that of the present-day, post-9/11 society, with economic crises, rising xenophobia, and a resurgence in right-wing politics in the west. Communism was the bugbear then, and the tabloid press were competing to come up with the most sensational headlines. Schlöndorff's intention was to ask his audience to stop, think, and consider in which direction Germany (and the world) was heading - towards greater democracy and strengthening of its civil liberties, or towards an era they'd already been in 30-odd years ago - but none in their right mind, would ever want to revisit.

For all the sensationalism it portrays, the film itself is austerely made. By keeping it 'real' - with its neutral lighting, simple but architectural compositions from cinematographer Jost Vacano, and assisted by some fine performances from the actors - notably Angela Winkler as the innocent, vulnerable, almost saintly and dignified Katharina Blum, and Mario Adorf who plays the ruthless investigating officer - Schlöndorff gives the film a documentary-feel to highlight the film's serious intent. Just as the film's tone progressively gets darker, so does its claustrophobic atmosphere, exacerbated by a metallic/industrial music score, creating a haunting study of life amidst a 'collective' mindset. This classic is without a doubt, Highly Recommended Viewing..! DVD Link [NTSC]
The excellent-transfer Criterion DVD comes with valuable extras - it includes interviews with directors Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, cinematographer Jost Vacano, and also a mini film biography on novelist Heinrich Böll supported by archive footage. This is my recommended choice of DVD.


The Nudity: Angela Winkler
There is a brief scene of nudity from Angela Winkler (Katharina Blum), forced to change into clothes with the door open while armed police stood watch. There is also a scene of Katharina's dead mother being cleaned in the morgue - one of the few rare occasions in cinema where an elderly woman is depicted in the nude.

Angela WInkler in Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum


Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Scenes from the Spanish film, "Cenizas del Cielo" [2008 Spain]

Using his intimate knowledge of the Asturias region, Spanish director José Antonio Quirós creates crowd-pleasing drama and romance through the film, "Cenizas del Cielo" [Eng. Title: Ashes from the Sun].

Travel writer Paul Ferguson's (Gary Piquer) progress through northern Spain is momentarily stalled after his caravan develops a fault in a remote village dominated by a smoke-belching power plant. Stranded for a few days until the local mechanic can order a replacement part for his vehicle, Ferguson will meet and develop a close friendship with Federico (Celso Bugallo) - a farmer who had passionately spent the last forty years trying to have the polluting power plant shut down. Without much success - Federico protects his cherry orchard from ash and acid-rain as best he could using improvised umbrella-like contraptions. Ferguson will also get acquainted with Federico's family and their little squabbles, their exuberance, and their welcoming nature. The caravan break-down - initially a nuisance, becomes the perfect excuse, for him to help out Federico in any which way he can, and also fall in love with Cristina (Clara Segura) - a mother of two, abandoned by her husband years ago. By the time he leaves, Ferguson had already invested a lot in the village, and knows that it won't be long before he returns...

It is a charming little drama using eccentric but likeable characters, teaming against their common villain - the almighty power plant owned by a big corporation. It's about the righteous small man fighting to do good, against the odds. The feel-good drama is well made, entertaining, and includes decent performances from its small cast. It is a neat little film that's also intended for a mainstream audience - it is Recommended Viewing..! DVD Link [PAL]
Cenizas del Cielo English Subtitles - 25fps
[25fps, created exclusively for the above DVD]


The Nudity: Beatriz Rico, Fran Sariego, Raquel Hevia, and Clara Segura
The film spices up proceedings with some brief scenes of nudity from voluptuous actresses Clara Seguro, Raquel Hevia, and an augmented Beatriz Rico. There is also male nudity from Fran Sariego who plays the husband of Ms. Rico's character.

Beatriz Rico, Fran Sariego, Raquel Hevia, and Clara Segura in Cenizas del Cielo


Sunday, 17 February 2013

Scenes from "Zateryannyy v Sibiri" [1991 USSR, UK]

I'm stating the obvious - a film like "Zateryannyy v Sibiri" [Eng. Title: Lost in Siberia] would have been unthinkable in the USSR, were it not for Glasnost. It was nevertheless the first authoritative portrayal of the workings of the Gulag - whatever us westerners knew until then, about conditions in these infamous labour camps, were at best - sketchy, and often coated with Cold War propaganda.

These correctional facilities housed people like convicted thieves, murderers, corrupt officials, prisoners of war, foreign spies, political (and even potential) dissidents, but invariably also included unfortunate innocents. The conditions in many of these prisons were as brutal as Nazi concentration camps, but some 'special' camps around the Kolyma region of north-eastern Siberia were certainly among the most dreaded, notorious right until the mid 1950's - few prisoners who passed through these camps lived to tell the tale. In one such labour camp is this film set in.

Andrew Miller (Anthony Andrews), a British archaeologist working in Persia towards the end of second World War is mistaken for a American namesake by Soviet troops winding-down their operations, and is kidnapped to Moscow for 'questioning'. Embarrassed that they've abducted and tortured an innocent, but also fearing a diplomatic row, and their own heads if he's let go, Andrew's existence is put through the metaphorical shredder, by despatching him to a labour camp. He finds himself having to not only survive the harsh conditions and brutal regime there, but also contend and coexist with criminal psychopaths with a very short fuse.

In that bleak world would however also be a ray of sunshine and warmth in the form of little Lilka (Ira Mikhalyova), a resourceful young girl looking after her terminally ill father. Andrew grows attached to her, and on an occasion even saves her life after she's given up for dead by the heartless authorities. Anna (Yelena Mayorova), a widowed doctor, will nurse Lilka back to health, even if Lilka would wrongly blame Anna for failing to care for her father, who'd succumb to his illness. Andrew and Anna also become secret lovers, much to the fury of the camp officer, Captain Malakhov (Vladimir Ilyin) - he wants to marry Anna. In revenge, he despatches Andrew to Kolyma...

Apart from the confusing epilogue voiced-over by Andrew - which seems to have been added as an afterthought for commercial considerations - the film is a steadfastly honest portrayal of life in Gulag camps during the darkest days of Stalinist rule. The plot and characters are convincingly real, and you are forced to feel for the main characters desperately trying to retain their humanity amidst the savagery. It may be a difficult film to watch, but it is also a beautiful human drama, well executed, with heartfelt performances by all the cast. The film is Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [All Regions]


The Nudity: Anthony Andrews, Yelena Majorova, and others
The film features several scenes of male, female, and child nudity. None of them are particularly pleasant though, and even the one sensual scene between Andrew and Anna is somewhat underwhelming. But these scenes are nevertheless integral to the film's plot, and has to be seen in context.

Anthony Andrews, Ira Mikhalyova, and Yelena Majorova in Zateryannyy v Sibiri


Thursday, 14 February 2013

Alba Rohrwacher in "Bella Addormentata" [2012 Italy]

Veteran director Marco Bellocchio's latest drama, "Bella Addormentata" [Eng. Title: Dormant Beauty] takes on the subject of euthanasia in a predominantly catholic Italy, by setting the film against a backdrop of real-life events in 2009, when the father of Eluana Englaro finally won the right to take her off the feeding tube that kept her alive in vegetative state for seventeen years following a road accident. It was a big news item in Italy that also prompted national and political debate.

The director presents three parallel sub-plots on the topic against the background of the Eluano Englaro case, using differing viewpoints. The first concerns the strained relationship between conscientious right-wing senator Uliano Beffardi (Toni Servillo), and his daughter Maria (Alba Rohrwacher) - a religious pro-life campaigner who travels to Udine to keep vigil outside the private hospital where Eluana is being weaned off the feeding tube. During her stay, Maria unexpectedly falls head-over-heels in love with pro-choice activist from the opposite camp, Roberto (Michele Riondino). It will take a while for the daughter, in deciding to answer her dad's repeated attempts to get in touch with her. The second plot concerns a vigorously religious former film star (Isabelle Huppert) praying for her comatose daughter Divina. Separated from her husband and son, the actress is determined to revive Divina through her piety. The third story concerns Rossa (Maya Sansa), a suicidal junkie who enters the hospital to steal drugs, but is caught in the act, and ends up as a patient after slashing her wrists. Doting doctor Pallido (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) will lay at her bedside, to try and reason with her obsession to kill herself. The three tales, through varying degrees of success, reignites a debate on the controversial topic of a person's right-to-die in a catholic Italy...

Bellocchio loves to weave his stories around historical events, like in his recently acclaimed Mussolini-biopic Vincere. But where as Vincere triumphs in terms of both its artistic and technical achievements, this film's success is at best, marginal. Perhaps because of the ambiguousness in the characterisation, and partly because it must have simply run out of time, Bella Addormentata has left too many loose ends to complete the picture, relying instead on the various melodramatic moments to keep the audience engaged. It has however become an excellent vehicle for most of its lead actors, notably Toni Servillo and Alba Rohrwacher, to showcase their awesome talents - they dig deep into their characters to unearth more than what the screenplay otherwise offers.

The film does have its 'Bellocchio' moments however, like the cynical doctor openly offering the odds to colleagues as to how long Eluana Englaro will last, and the party psychiatrist (veteran actor Roberto Herlitzka) with his wisecracks and nuggets of wisdom. Bellocchio-regular - the beautiful and ridiculously sexy Maya Sansa adds a bit of spice to proceedings as the fiery but suicidal drug-addict. Ms. Huppert too delivers a well-rounded performance as the ageing actress determined to save her comatose daughter. The other noteworthy aspects of the film will have to be its impeccable cinematography and the appealing soundtrack. At least on these points, the film scores, and is Recommended Viewing..! DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity: Alba Rohrwacher
In the only scene of nudity, we see Maria, played by the exceptionally talented Alba Rohrwacher, with Roberto (Michele Riondino) spending the night in a hotel room. After telling him that she wants to be with him forever, Maria reassures Roberto that she isn't really the clingy-type - that she'll leave him in peace in a little while.

Alba Rohrwacher in Bella Addormentata


Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Scenes from Matteo Garrone's "L'imbalsamatore" [2002 Italy]

Matteo Garrone once again takes us on a trip through the dark recesses of desire and obsession in his psychological 'romantic' drama, "L'imbalsamatore" [Eng. Title: The Taxidermist aka The Embalmer]. So much so that the grey decaying Neapolitan landscape will end up becoming one of its few cheery highlights...

The tone of the film is set when we're introduced to Peppino - a short, fifty-something taxidermist, examining a heap of exotic animal-corpses in the very first scene - this is certainly not going to be a ride in the park. We could also foresee that the film will be about coveting and possessing trophies - something that might require the skills of a taxidermist. Or cunning, perhaps...

Young and handsome Valerio is with his girlfriend and her son, enjoying a day out at the zoo, when Peppino first catches glimpse of him. Smitten instantly, Peppino approaches them and initiates a conversation  by the vulture's enclosure. We hear most of their conversation from the viewpoint of the vulture - watching them from inside the cage, complete with distorted vision and batting eyelids. We notice Valerio's fascination for Peppino's profession, and his nonchalant attitude towards the girlfriend - she is left waiting for him to finish his chat with Peppino. Perhaps he's trying to tell her something - but more likely, he is genuinely interested in what Peppino does for a living, having inherited a few stuffed animals of his own from his late hunter-father.

When Peppino offers Valerio a generously paid job to work as his assistant, he accepts, and before long he'll be moving into Peppino's apartment - and we can only guess where this is heading. Peppino showers him with expensive gifts and also requisitions prostitutes for their foursomes - not only to use these occasions as an excuse to get closer to him, but also in the hope of turning Valerio into a dependent pet. It seems to work for a while - until Valerio is set eyes on by foxy brunette Deborah - a recently fired garage receptionist determined to win him, even using her self-professed oral-sex skills if necessary. But Peppino is no pushover either - he has Camorra-connections (a Neapolitan thing) - sewing up corpses to transport drugs when instructed, and is subsequently liquid enough to entice Valerio with mouthwatering gifts like luxury holidays. Who wins the right to Valerio's body is ultimately of less relevance to the film, than its merciless character-study of the aforementioned protagonists.

While an insecure Peppino wears his heart on his sleeve (he does have a heart), his intentions are nevertheless morbidly tinged with obsession. Meanwhile, the good-looking Valerio has plainly no time to fall in love with anyone - he's too busy lapping up the attention everyone showers on him. On more than one occasion, we get the impression that he wouldn't hesitate to swing either way if he chooses, established through his frequent vacillation in relation to Deborah and Peppino's advances. Both, Peppino and Valerio, are repulsive as much as they're likeable. Obviously Garrone's intention is not to show them in their best possible light - even the landscape is set in a bleakly grey and dull Naples - not quite the Mediterranean skies we're usually served up in Italian films.

But in the process we're given a haunting insight into the 'greyness' of urban relationships - neither black nor white - self-centred, possessive, and devoid of values. The film is very well executed even if it demands the viewer to have an open mind. The performance by Ernesto Mahieux who plays Peppino helps greatly in lifting the film above the ordinary - for which he was also rightfully awarded a David, as is the impeccable casting choice of Elisabetta Rocchetti as the determined and steely-nerved Deborah. I also loved the soundtrack and music by Banda Osiris which immensely aides the narrative, and of course, the uncompromising direction as ever by Matteo Garrone. The film is Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity: Elisabetta Rocchetti and others
The film features brief instances of nudity from Elisabetta Rocchetti who plays the character Deborah, in a sex scene with Valerio (the handsome Valerio Foglia Manzillo). There is an additional nude scene of the prostitutes with Peppino and Valerio.

Elisabetta Rocchetti, Nadia Carlomagno and Rita Brugnoli in L'imbalsamatore


Sunday, 10 February 2013

Washing away 'sins', and entire lives - "The Magdalene Sisters" [Ireland, UK 2002]

A recent news story concerning state-collusion in Ireland's Magdalene Laundry system was a grim reminder of the depths to which humans could descend to, when bigotry is infused into religion. As appalling it is to read accounts of the enslavement and abuse - physical and sexual - of these 'fallen women', in supposedly emancipatory institutions, it is nevertheless brought to life in chilling detail, in Peter Mullan's award-winning 2002 drama, "The Magdalene Sisters".

What is all the more shocking is that these laundries were fully operational until as recently as 1996, and even then, they were shut down not so much due to moral compulsions, but rather for economic reasons - with changing mores and widespread use of washing machines, these laundries had ceased to be profitable, and even regular institutional customers like the army had stopped using them. Those interested in further reading on the Magdalene laundry system may start from this wiki-link.

Set in the 1960's and inspired by true events, the film follows the fate of three young women, starting from their induction into a Magdalene laundry. The first to arrive is Margaret - she'd been raped by a cousin, and her parents decide to send her here in order to protect their family's reputation. And for bearing a child out of wedlock, young Rose is cruelly separated from her newborn, and also dispatched to the asylum. The third one to arrive is Bernadette - brought up in an orphanage - her only 'sin' was being attractive, and by inference, liable to induce lecherous feelings among men. None of them though, are aware of what lay in store for them at the asylum. They will soon enough realise that they're nothing more than slaves, prevented from communicating with each another, and forced into hard labour at the laundry, devoid of any civil rights. They could be held there indefinitely until a relative offers to take them back. They notice that many have been languishing there since childhood, systematically abused by priests and nuns - physically, emotionally, and sexually. Margaret, Rose, and Bernadette fortunately find a happy end to their misery, but many inmates won't be so lucky...

It may be one of the more distressing films you're likely to see, but it is also one of the most thought-provoking and moving of films, well performed by all the principal actors, notably veteran actress Geraldine McEwan as the cold-hearted matron, Eileen Walsh as the terribly unfortunate inmate Crispina, and Dorothy Duffy as the forcibly separated mother Rose aka Patricia. The film pulls no punches in pointing out the failings of an institution which was originally conceived with a manifest for rehabilitating prostitutes (a la Mary Magdalene), but which hitherto extended its mandate to also include unwed mothers, flirtatious women, and even young girls who were simply deemed 'too' pretty. But it isn't particularly critical of Catholicism itself. It is nevertheless an important film, reminding us that good intentions can easily and even unintentionally degenerate into cruelty and outright nastiness. Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [PAL]
Apart from the film, the DVD also includes a documentary titled "Sex in a Cold Climate", featuring revealing interviews from some of the former inmates themselves. Definitely worth checking out.


The Nudity:
Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Anne-Marie Duff, Eileen Walsh, and others
The only nude scene occurs in the middle of the film, where two nuns line up asylum girls and start humiliating them, by poking fun at their physical attributes. It isn't particularly a pleasant scene, and is made all the more disturbing with the knowledge that it is based on a true account. Some of the girls featured here - Bernadette, Patricia (Rose), Margaret, and Crispina - also happen to be the main cast, played by Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Anne-Marie Duff, and Eileen Walsh respectively.

 Nora-Jane Noone, Dorothy Duffy, Anne-Marie Duff, Eileen Walsh, and others in The Magdalene Sisters


Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Odile Schmitt in "Les Années Lumière" [1981 Switzerland, France]

It can be difficult to pigeon-hole Alain Tanner - he is one of the few pan-European directors who likes to defy cultural, linguistic, and geographical boundaries when it comes to cinema, and here's another example - his contemplative drama "Les Années Lumière" [Eng. Title: Light Years Away] may have been a Swiss-French production, but the English language film was shot entirely in Ireland, with a predominantly British cast, by adapting aspects from a well-known Greek myth (Daedalus and Icarus).

Young Jonas (Mick Ford), a drifter at heart who likes to be free 'like a bird', first meets Yoshka Poliakeff (Trevor Howard) while working in a pub. But when he's fired for not turning up for work on time, Jonas goes in search of Yoshka's garage up in the country. But Yoshka wouldn't take him under his wings that easily. Forced to sleep outside and toil to earn his meals, Jonas will find the going tough, and is forced to battle with his own self to understand a purpose in life. The eccentric Yoshka will eventually become his perfect tutor and master, to help him see beyond the obvious - Yoshka after all had been preparing all these years to fly away "beyond galaxies, light years away", by meticulously observing and bonding with birds of prey. He had constructed the perfect wings for his task, and this Daedalus is going to do it all alone, for himself - it is his own personal journey. And Jonas too will learn a thing or two about life from the guru before his departure...

Set in a desolate landscape, the austere and allegorical film bears witness to the coming-of-age of a clueless young drifter. It is simple in its structure and doesn't try to say anything more than it needs to. Alain Tanner followed this up with an equally contemplative but more accomplished Dans la Ville Blanche, but despite its rough edges and at times incoherent edits, "Light Years Away" stands out on its own as an imaginative interpretation of an interesting tale. The haunting dogma-style cinematography would have pleased Lars von Trier, and far from being dreary, the film is brought alive by the humour and warmth of the characters. Oscar-nominated Trevor Howard is in his element as the enigmatic Yoshka - witty and engaging - it is through him that we develop an interest in Jonas' personal journey. This may be an obscure little gem, but precious nevertheless, and Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity: Mick Ford and Odile Schmitt
The nude scenes happen much later in the film, when Jonas (Mick Ford) visits the city to complete some necessary paperwork for his will. He meets an exotic dancer at a club (Odile Schmitt) where they strike up a relationship. Well - of sorts...

Odile Schmitt and Mick Ford in Les années lumière


Saturday, 2 February 2013

Martina Gusman and Laura García in "Leonera" [2008, Argentina]

The 70's and 80's may have spawned and subsequently flogged to death an entire sub-genre of exploitative films called Women-in-prison dramas, but just when we thought there's nothing more left to 'explore', comes Argentinian director Pablo Trapero's Cannes-nominated drama, "Leonera" [Eng. Title: Lion's Den]. This one is not for fans of exploitation though - it is serious cinema - a gritty and thought-provoking essay of the human spirit, and an honest inquiry into the judicial system.

Julia, twenty five, is incarcerated for alleged involvement in the murder of her live-in boyfriend Nahuel. Also arrested is Nahuel's lover Ramiro - badly injured, but still alive. While leaving us to ponder and draw our own conclusions over Julia's own lifestyle, the film moves away to focus on her predicament instead - she is pregnant, and with a strenuous relationship with her mother living in France, almost alone. Her middle class upbringing hasn't prepared her for prison life, and despite being placed in a lenient ward set aside for expectant and young mothers, her despair is palpable. But she does manage to make friends, give birth, and her mother too returns to Argentina to provide things for baby Tomás. But when the trial concludes with her conviction, Julia is forced to give up Tomás, and her mother is made the child's guardian. Julia had fought tooth and nail for the child's custody, but had lost all her appeals. She's now only left with a drastic alternative to help regain her son, but will she go so far..?

Trapero has constructed a beautifully nuanced film that is much more than a straightforward story. Shot in real prison surroundings, a lot of effort had gone into portraying the drama as realistically as possible. True, there are cat-fights in the showers here as well, but it also highlights the loneliness among cell-mates - their earning for human touch and affection, and also the humanity of prison guards under less than ideal circumstances. More importantly, we're shown what it feels like to be a middle class woman suddenly denied some of the civil liberties taken for granted, and the determination of a mother to be given the right to raise her own child in prison.

The star of the film undoubtedly is director Trapero's wife Martina Gusman playing the part of Julia (she is also the film's executive producer). Ms. Gusman was actually pregnant during part of its production, which adds a unique dimension to the film. Appearing in almost every frame, her contribution to the film's artistic success is as much as the director's wholehearted effort. The characterisation and screenplay are also at their most imaginative - there are scenes that are exquisitely developed, which, while not pivotal to the plot, nevertheless add rich layers to the narrative. This is an unqualified success for Pablo Trapero, and Highly Recommended Viewing..! 2-DVD Set [NTSC]
It includes numerous extras, including the making of, and some deleted scenes. My recommended choice, the set with which this film has been reviewed.


The Nudity: Martina Gusman, Laura García, and others
The film features several instances of nudity and breastfeeding from Martina Gusman who plays Julia, Laura García who plays Marta - her confidante and friend in prison, and also from assorted supporting cast during a shower scene.

Martina Gusman and Laura García from Pablo Trapero's Leonera


Friday, 1 February 2013

Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier in "Céline et Julie vont en Bateau" [1974 France]

The headline might sound a bit disrespectful, but it is this film's very virtue - and the ride, actually quite joyful. Jacques Rivette's ingenius "Céline et Julie vont en Bateau" [Eng. Title: Celine and Julie go Boating] explores the art of storytelling by blurring, and at times obfuscating traditional narrative altogether, by taking us on a trip through the surreal world of the protagonists during a balmy Parisian summer. It is also Rivette's most successful international hit to date.

It's doubtful if I can do it justice, but shall give it a try...
Brushing up on her magic spells at a park, librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) is distracted by a passing young woman - Céline (Juliet Berto), absent-mindedly dropping a trail of paraphernalia from her overflowing handbag. Julie, intrigued by the woman who appears to be in some kind of hurry, picks them up and follows Céline, which takes the shape of a flirtatious pursuit across the streets of Paris, amidst puzzled onlookers. They will soon become close friends, possibly more, even developing a kind of telepathic bond between them. Together, they embark on investigating the mystery surrounding a nearby mansion and its hitherto occupants, by taking turns in venturing inside. When either of them pass through the door, it shuts behind on its own, but upon leaving the mansion, they strangely loose all memory of what they saw inside; the only remnant of their visit is their dazed expression, and a boiled sweet in their mouth. They realise that the sweet, while it lasts, also helps them recollect fragments of what went on when they were inside, but not quite enough to reconstruct the full story, despite repeat visits, where the same drama with differently nuanced performances are played out during every visit (like shows in a theatre play).

What they do remember is that once inside, they turn into one of the characters - a nurse, employed to care for 'Madlyn', the child of the master of the house. It is not until they decide to pay a visit together, with the help of some 'baby dinosaur eye-rings', that they begin to piece together a tragic unfolding melodrama, where 'Madlyn' is in mortal danger from some relatives of the household. They try to thwart the murder and rescue 'Madlyn' using various means. Towards the end of the film, we'll see that they have come full-circle, ready to embark on the adventure once again...

This, of course, is just part of the storyline - at over three hours, there are numerous other moments thrown into the film paying homage to different genre - from romance to family melodrama, and from murder mystery to farcical comedy, it is a celebration of cinema and its magic itself. Rivette, as he often does, explores the film medium in relationship with other art forms - in this instance, theatre. He firmly believes in cinema's roots in theatre, and it is underscored repetitively using various traditional theatrical elements, like the on-stage cues, exits, and the repeat performances themselves - likening them to rehearsals. There is also referral to audience reactions upon leaving a theatre or cinema after a matinee - momentarily dazed, by being ushered back into the real world. Not to mention how some shows might require repeat viewings from the audience to 'get the full picture', is also illustrated succinctly through the screenplay itself.

In addition to this, we get to see Rivette indulging in what he enjoys most, the film-making process itself, as opposed to the finished product. Using minimal edits, exquisite cinematography, evocative score, and the enchanting, albeit slightly kooky protagonists, he promises us a pleasurable boating experience, full of grace, beauty, and warmth, through a Parisian summer stunningly timestamped with its gorgeous 1970's wardrobe. But despite taking us for a ride for the most part, Jacques Rivette, nevertheless delivers, and in style! But the film is also as much a creation of Rivette as it is of the two principal actresses - Godard-regular Juliet Berto (sadly deceased) and Dominique Labourier, playing the eponymous roles respectively, and who practically created the characters themselves by drawing references from various literary sources like Lewis Carroll and Henry James. They indulge in improvisation too, like in the scene where Céline makes up a tall tale for her bewildered friends about the 'American celebrity' she's recently moved in with. This gem of a film is utterly charming while also showcasing the sheer magic of cinema and theatre - it is Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon BFI 2-DVD-set [PAL]
This is a sumptuous and super-value 2-DVD set from BFI UK - the first DVD is the film itself, while the second DVD includes an insightful interview from Jonathan Romney on Rivette, and also has a brilliant documentary about the Bibliothèque Nationale called "All the World's Memory" by the Alain Resnais.


The Nudity: Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier
There is a scene of Céline (Juliet Berto) making up one of her tall stories while in the shower, while a bemused Julie (Dominique Labourier) eggs her along. There is also brief, if unintended nudity from Ms. Labourier, trying to scrub off a stain in the shower.

Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier are witty, sexy, and also briefly appear nude in Jacques Rivette's enchanting classic, "Céline et Julie vont en Bateau" aka "Celine and Julie go Boating".