Wednesday, October 01, 2014

MAHANAGAR (The Big City)

In most cases, the trouble with melodramas and problem pictures is how much the plotting seems to follow a linear, predictable arc of gantlets and obstacles lifted straight out from screenwriting 101 and more concerned with issues than with plausibility or character. Not so - quite the opposite - in Indian master filmmaker Satyajit Ray's 1963 masterpiece The Big City: its tale of hardships and struggle in the suburbs of Calcutta is simultaneously less predictable and more realistic than a mere synopsis would provide, while fitting perfectly into the director's recurrent theme of the contrast between tradition and modernity in a sprawling country attempting to stand on its own two feet.

     Inspired by a short story by celebrated Bengali writer Narendranath Mitra, The Big City tells of the daily life of the Majumdar family, struggling to pay the bills at the end of the month ever since husband Subrata's (Anil Chatterjee) elderly parents have moved in. Wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) eventually decides to look for a job - something frowned upon in a traditional household - but she soon finds she's been dealt a more complex hand than it seemed at first. The empowerment she feels from her successful entry in the workforce as a saleswoman for a knitting company becomes a threat to the entrenched patriarchy, from a father-in-law (Haren Chatterjee) that refuses to acknowledge her job to a boss (Haradhan Banerjee) who still sees her as docile and servile, ending in the problems that arise when bank teller Subrata loses his job in a bank run and Arati becomes the single moneymaker in the family.

     For all that, as always with the director, it's personality and character that are put to the fore: these are not characters created to explain or set an issue, rather fully-fledged people with feelings and doubts. This isn't so much the story of a family struggling to keep afloat, but the personal transformative journey of two people who learn about themselves the hard way: a woman who realises she does not have to remain in a passive homemaker role and can find other ways of feeling fulfilled, a man who finds a changing society is not only for him but for everyone else as well, both extraordinarily performed by Ms. Mukherjee and Mr. Chatterjee.

     Mr. Ray's exacting, quiet slow-burn approach, simplicity itself, douses any excesses or dangers that the story might have fallen in in lesser hands, while underlining just how perfectly attuned he was to the ever-changing challenges of modern life. The attention to revealing detail in the relationships is astounding, with apparently throwaway moments used as context-creating shortcuts (the young son's desire for gifts as a constant source of despair for an Arati afraid of bribing her son with toys; the boss's reverse racism towards the English patent in his dismissive treatment of fellow salesman Edith), painting in the corners of a background that never undermines the big picture at its heart.

     Extraordinarily assembled in its ebb-and-flow mesh network of criss-crossing stories and plot lines, The Big City is one of the Indian director's utter masterpieces, even if one of his least remembered ones. And also one of his most resonant and enthralling, 50 years later.

MAHANAGAR
India 1963
136 minutes
Cast Anil Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Haradhan Banerjee, Haren Chatterjee, Vicky Redwood, Jaya Bhaduri, Sefalika Devi, Prasenjit Sarkar
Director, screenwriter and composer Satyajit Ray; based on the short story by Narendranath Mitra, "Abataranika"; cinematographer Subrata Mitra (b&w); designer Bansi Chandragupta; editor Dulal Dutta; producer R. D. Bansal; production company RDB & Company
Screened September 19th 2014, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

NAYAK (The Hero)

Part of Satyajit Ray's glorious decade of 1960, The Hero is still striking, 50 years on, for the audacious, clear-eyed modernity of its plot and approach, standing shoulder to shoulder with some of European art cinema's more influential works, with whom it shares thematic links: Federico Fellini's meta-textual fantasy 8 1/2 and Ingmar Bergman's melancholy Wild Strawberries. 

     Set almost entirely in the cramped confines of train carriages during an overnight train journey, The Hero is a thoughtful meditation on life and stage, being and appearing, through the eyes of a man pondering where he is and where he wants to go next. Film star Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar) is en route to receive an award, hot on the heels of a minor publicity scandal (a night club altercation with the husband of his current flirt) and a less successful starring role. Cleverly using the limitations of his chosen setting, Mr. Ray moves the tale simultaneously in two opposite directions: forward with the train's movement, into an unknown future where nothing is granted, and backwards as Arindam remembers the path he took from idealistic stage actor to fully-fledged film star while being interviewed by a feisty journalist (Sharmila Tagore).

     legant as the motif and its realisation are, there is some rigidity in the back-and-forth cutting, though not enough to mar the remarkable layering of plot and subtext; confirming himself a superlative actors' director, Mr. Ray pulls excellent performances from both Mr. Kumar and Ms. Tagore, especially in the long sequences where the actor's glamorous armour is pierced by the degree of empathy the journalist manages to find with him. The film's key theme of identity and image is exquisitely breached in their conversations, set on a level entirely separate from everyone else on the train; while most are constantly judging Arindam for who they think he is, or for the image that he has allowed others to build, she makes an effort to look beyond that image, even though the actor knows very well what is expected and required of him, and as such torn between playing up to it or renege on it and everything it has helped him achieve.

     It's not entirely implausible that Mr. Ray may be obliquely talking of himself - but, ultimately, his vignette offers no easy solutions or way out, while posing the questions with such elegance and adroitness that The Hero's occasional heavy-handed longueurs are easily forgiven and forgotten.

NAYAK
India 1966
117 minutes
Cast Uttam Kumar, Sharmila Tagore, Bireswar Sen, Somen Bose, Nirmal Ghosh, Premang Shu Bose, Sumita Sanyal, Ranjit Sen
Director, screenwriter and composer Satyajit Ray; cinematographer Subrata Mitra (b&w); art director Bansi Chandragupta; editors Dulal Dutta and Mr. Ray; producer R. D. Bansal; production company RDB & Company
Screened September 18th 2014, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)

Monday, September 29, 2014

JAI BABA FELUNATH (The Elephant God)

If The Elephant God is your first contact with the work of celebrated Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, you might be in for a surprise. Mr. Ray being better known as the director who showed there was more to Indian cinema than the Bollywood extravaganzas with his attentive studies of the chasm between tradition and modernity, seeing him helming a nudge-nudge wink-wink whodunit openly aimed at younger audiences will seem to be out of character.

     Not at all: a Renaissance man of sorts, screenwriter, director, composer and occasional editor of his films while still finding time for other pursuits, Mr. Ray was also a successful mystery writer and The Elephant God was the second film adaptation he directed of his own stories about Bengali private eye Felu Mitter. Here played by Ray regular Soumitra Chatterjee, the vacationing detective finds himself involved in the theft of a very valuable heirloom coveted by an unscrupulous gangster.

     In many ways, The Elephant God transcends the mere whodunit format thanks to the writer-director's clever transformation of the tale into a meta-whodunit, a mystery about mysteries. Mitter travels with his good friend Lalmohan Ganguly (Santosh Dutta), himself a mystery writer of some renown; his books are devoured by Ambika Ghosal (Bimal Chatterjee), the owner of the stolen figurine, who challenges Mitter and his party to find "who did it". And Mr. Ray's always elegant formal compositions, cleverly making use of boxes, windows, jetties, show how much the entire film is a seamless integrated construct that also addresses the contradictions of modern-day India by having a Westernised detective investigating the disappearance of a religious statuette thought to bring luck to the household, with an apparent ascetic guru hovering in the background.

   It is an entertainment, but it's a lively, intelligent entertainment, neither condescending to its audience nor taking itself overly seriously; Mr. Ray knew very well that there are no guilty pleasures, as David Bordwell is fond of saying, just many different types of film, and there is no reason why a talented filmmaker cannot do different types of films without "betraying" his talents or staining his curriculum. Case in point, and case closed.

JAI BABA FELUNATH
India 1978
122 minutes
Cast Soumitra Chatterjee, Utpal Dutt, Santosh Dutta, Siddhartha Chatterjee, Haradhan Banerjee, Satya Banerjee, Bimal Chatterjee, Biplab Chatterjee, Moloy Roy, Santosh Sinha, Sriman Jit Bose
Director, screenwriter and composer Satyajit Ray; based on the novel Jai Baba Felunath by Mr. Ray; cinematographer Soumendu Roy (colour); art director Ashok Bose; costumes Haru Das and Tapan Das; editor Dulal Dutta; producer R. D. Bansal; production company RDB & Company
Screened September 17th 2014, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)

Friday, September 26, 2014

OS GATOS NÃO TÊM VERTIGENS

"One book can change a life" is said at one point in veteran helmer António-Pedro Vasconcelos' extremely disappointing new film. True enough, and you could also apply it to a film, a play, a picture, etc. In this case, however, Os Gatos Não Têm Vertigens will hardly change anybody's life: that one of the few Portuguese directors who has kept a constant stream of work ever since the late 1960s/early 1970s Cinema Novo movement has stooped to the level of an entirely anonymous, almost unrecognisable hack-for-hire is all the more disappointing, for Mr. Vasconcelos has been one of the few directors to hit that sweet mainstream spot of cinéma du milieu that so many Portuguese filmmakers look for but are unable to find.

     Sadly, the director doesn't find it either on this infuriatingly basic melodrama that fails to make the most of its premise and of a superb lead performance by the great (and often underused) actress Maria do Céu Guerra. She is outstanding as Rosa Correia, a recent widower whose life loses meaning and reason after her husband Joaquim (Nicolau Breyner, in a small supporting role) dies unexpectedly; though she keeps talking to him and seeing him around the house, in the form of a benevolent ghost hovering around looking after her, daughter Luísa (Fernanda Serrano) is worried by what she sees as her mother's descent into senility or dementia, while the callous son-in-law (Ricardo Carriço) merely wants to get rid of her so he can rent out her prime real-estate flat in the centre of the city.

     Ms. Guerra is exceedingly sensitive to the predicament Rosa finds herself in and fleshes out her character with an attention to detail that is much helped by a few nice touches in Tiago Santos' script, but the film seems to shy away from making that look into the difficulties and indignities of old age its raison d'être. The real focus of the script is Rosa's relationship with homeless teenager Jó (João Jesus), a problem kid from a broken home thrown out by his alcoholic father, hanging out with juvenile delinquents and finding refuge in the rooftop of the building where she lives. And the film suddenly starts spending a lot more time in Jó's company, in what looks far too much like a contrivance required to get the project off the ground by appealing to audiences other than seniors - and his story is textbook soap opera 101 about the sensitive but misunderstood kid (a budding writer, no less) that society keeps kicking down into the dumps, but that one friendly hand will help rise above.

     It's all so predictable and basic in its storytelling and narrative arc, without any flair or distinctive features, that it kind of beggars belief that this would come from a veteran with credentials. It's purely functional filmmaking in the service of a story that isn't so much written but built along a to-do list of check boxes for feuilletonesque aspects or stock characters (evil son-in-law? clueless daughter? prostitute with heart of gold? etc.).

     The result is that the decent, even intriguing start (a rather smart opening one-take steadycam shot promising so much) is slowly but deliberately wasted, as are the not inconsiderable talents of all involved (even veteran film composer Luís Cilia has watered down here his more usual angular work, going for a saccharine jugular that seems entirely in auto-pilot). The handling and scripting whittle the many possibilities of the premise down to the least interesting, more formulaic choices, and weren't it for Ms. Guerra's precisely measured performance, respectfully directed by Mr. Vasconcelos, Os Gatos Não Têm Vertigens would be a pointless, entirely forgettable object whose true home would be the small screen. It seems as if all involved thought that what audiences want from a big-screen melodrama is blown-up soap opera - which would be fine if the soap opera was any good, and this isn't.

OS GATOS NÃO TÊM VERTIGENS
Portugal 2014
124 minutes
Cast Maria do Céu Guerra, João Jesus, Fernanda Serrano, Ricardo Carriço, Nicolau Breyner
Director António-Pedro Vasconcelos; screenwriter Tiago R. Santos; cinematographer José António Loureiro (colour, widescreen); composer Luís Cília; art director João Torres; costumes Pedro Eleutério and Mia Lourenço; editor Pedro Ribeiro; producer Tino Navarro; production company MGN Filmes in co-production with RTP and the participation of NOS Audiovisuais
Screened September 4th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

IRANIEN (Iranian)

An artist, filmmaker and architect living in Paris, Mehran Tamadon is one of the "secular" Iranians that became seriously disenchanted with the progressively more restrictive fundamentalist roads the Islamic Republic took after the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Iranien is the result of a long-gestating desire of Mr. Tamadon's: an attempt at proving the possibility of cohabitation and peaceful coexistence between "secular" and "religious" Iranians, long discouraged by the authorities in charge.

     The director's previous film, 2009's Bassidji, was an investigation into that possibility, an attempt to understand what goes in in the mind of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and religious conservatives, and placed the seed of what would become Iranien in Mr. Tamadon's mind. After a three-year old series of negotiations, the director finally got the green light to set up a weekend of cohabitation between these different conceptions of the Islamic Republic: himself, as a representative of the secular, urbanised Iranians who push for a greater engagement with contemporary culture and the outside world, and four mullahs, religious consultants from different schools and degrees of conservatism.

     The final result is a peculiarly gripping and often bewilderingly thought-provoking documentary, the portrait of a dialogue at once viable and impossible between countrymen who have as much in common as they have little in common. Mr. Tamadon's film suggests the existence of a true pleasure of debate, discussion, conviviality, conversation regardless of belief, while recognising that the debate has become completely, maybe irreversibly poisoned by the polarised political dichotomy, us-vs.-them, that has taken hold in Iran especially under hardliner former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the film was shot in 2012, before the election of president Hassan Rouhani, but only premiered afterwards). Still, the director's attempt at initiating a dialogue is clearly sabotaged from the very beginning as Mr. Tamadon turns out to be woefully naïve and unprepared for the awesome rhetorical powers of these master theologians, experts in shaping words and philosophies, running circles around him without him even noticing he is a lamb being led to slaughter.

     That the director has no qualms about showing himself in this less than flattering light is a sign of his understanding of the stakes - and that, after all the friendliness and collegiality that the weekend shows, Iranien ends with the understanding that Mr. Tamadon's project may have been doomed from the start, a mere reinforcement of the prejudices and suspicions on either side, is a sobering realisation of the limits of good will and tolerance. And yet, the mere existence of this documentary, and the disarming frankness with which Mr. Tamadon depicts an ongoing conversation that reveals an often unseen side of Iranian society, is also living proof of the curiosity, openness and friendliness of a culture too often reduced to those exact same prejudices and soundbites. Either way, Iranien is a revelatory work.

IRANIEN
France, Switzerland, Iran 2013
105 minutes
Director Mehran Tamadon; cinematographer Mohammed Reza Jahanpanah (colour); editors Mr. Tamadon, Marie-Hélène Dozo, Luc Forveille and Olivier Zurchuat; producers Raphaël Pillosio and Elena Tatti; production companies L'Atelier Documentaire, Box Productions and Mehran Tamadon Productions
Screened February 8th 2014, Cinemaxx 6, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 Forum press screening)


Monday, September 22, 2014

ALENTEJO, ALENTEJO

Community and society have always been the key words in the work of Portuguese documentary filmmaker Sérgio Tréfaut, and after an intriguing fictional interlude with 2001's heavily stylized, formalist problem picture Viagem a Portugal, he's back to what he knows what to do best: show and tell the lives of unexpected or undervalued communities. With Alentejo, Alentejo, winner of the 2014 Best Portuguese Feature prize at the IndieLisboa festival, Mr. Tréfaut posits a combination of homage to and investigation on the traditional folk music of Southern Portugal's Alentejo region. "Cante", as it is known, is an unaccompanied choral polyphony sung by groups of (mostly) men or (more occasionally) women (but never of mixed sex), that seems to rise out of the area's dry, parchid landscape like a people standing its ground and expressing its dreams and dignity.

     The result of a number of years of shooting with choruses and natives all over the country (dramatically lighted by DP João Ribeiro), Alentejo, Alentejo articulates performances of cante by some of the key groups that perform it regularly and keep the fires burning with "talking heads" interviews that tell of the form's history and meaning, and of its strong connection to land and people. Work, party and protest song at once or in turn, with a role as an escape valve of the daily hardships or simply a celebration of origins, cante's importance is simultaneously demonstrated and explained through voice and song in Mr. Tréfaut's enveloping work, defining the form as a sort of "landless community", an unexplained, invisible but constant throughline that connects generations.

     Alentejo, Alentejo isn't your standard talking heads documentary but neither is it a straight-forward musical essay - it lies somewhere in the middle, music and speech alternately illuminating and clarifying each other, in a hybrid form that can occasionally be jarring but is never gratuitous. If anything, it's a somewhat shapeless film, a project that seems to be merely an excerpt of a longer story, a piece of something that neither begins or ends there - and that sense of "never ending story" is actually more than appropriate for a film that deals with a longstanding tradition that remains improbably alive, that comes from time immemorial and seems to want to go on for an unforeseeable future, as seen in the choral group of young men whose unlikely take-up of cante in the age of smartphones and YouTube works as the film's final link. Alentejo, Alentejo says a lot about Portugal - past and present - without ever needing to leave the one region it apparently deals with.

ALENTEJO, ALENTEJO
Portugal 2014
97 minutes
Director, screenwriter and producer Sérgio Tréfaut; cinematographer João Ribeiro (colour); editor Pedro Marques; production companies Faux and Casa do Cante
Screened April 24th 2014, São Jorge 1, Lisbon (IndieLisboa 2014 premiere screening)



Alentejo Alentejo (long trailer HD) EN version from Faux on Vimeo.

Friday, September 19, 2014

JERSEY BOYS

Clint Eastwood no longer has anything to prove to anyone and can afford to pursue whatever projects he desires. That one of them should be Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's massively successful Broadway musical about the story of pop singer Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons isn't that much of a surprise if you factor in the actor/director's love of music (Honkytonk Man and Bird come immediately to mind). But it remains a peculiar choice for Mr. Eastwood since the New Jersey backdrop and the rock'n'roll and mobster connotations of the tale place it so squarely in Mean Streets Martin Scorsese territory - it's kind of Goodfellas meets That Thing You Do!, with Vincent Piazza imbuing his Tommy de Vito with the low-life swagger of a young De Niro or Ray Liotta, with a side of Chazz Palminteri's Bronx Tale to boot and a sprinkling of Sopranos-lite.

     Either way, the central dynamic in Jersey Boys lies in the band's constant see-sawing between two opposite poles. Angel-voiced singer Frankie (John Lloyd Young) and inspired songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) embody the essence of the American blue collar dream of hard work as a means to move up to the world; the smart but insecure guitarist Tommy is the breezy, shady grifter always out to con somebody else before he is conned. That tension between facade and reality, inside and outside, lies at the heart of the story as it has in so many Eastwood movies about people focussed to the point of obsession; a tension replicated in the adherence to the play's breaking-the-fourth-wall addresses to the audience and in the shifting of narrators between the four group members, presenting different (but not necessarily contradicting) versions of a same tale. And it is also replicated in Mr. Eastwood's desire to simultaneously follow the conventions and flaunt them openly: Jersey Boys is not your typical musical, where song and dance are inbuilt into the narrative flow, but a "jukebox" where the songs are used as both temporal markers and background commentary to the narrative.

     The narrative, however, is a standard rise-and-fall, rags-to-riches arc, filmed with all the awareness of the material's limitations and like an old-fashioned studio hand would have in the halcyon days of the studio system: deftly, economically, effectively, but also strangely anonymously, as indeed most of Mr. Eastwood's post-2008 work (The Changeling, Hereafter, J. Edgar). Hardly a strikeout - the director knows what he is doing - but neither is it a classic in the vein of later masterpieces such as Letters from Iwo Jima or Gran Torino. It's a film that would have needed a different energy, a different drive, to actually be more than just an amiable filming of a Broadway hit; there are enough tantalizing clues throughout of what it could have been, but the end result is somewhat not as big as the sum of the parts.

JERSEY BOYS
USA 2014
134 minutes
Cast John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken
Director Clint Eastwood; screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice; based on the stage play by Messrs. Brickman and Elice, Jersey Boys: The True Story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons; songs by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe; cinematographer Tom Stern (colour, widescreen); designer James J. Murakami; costumes Deborah Hopper; editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; effects supervisor Michael Owens; choreographer Sergio Trujillo; producers Mr. Eastwood, Graham King and Robert Lorenz; production companies Warner Bros. Pictures, GK Films and The Malpaso Company in association with Ratpac-Dune Entertainment
Screened August 29th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon (distributor press screening)