Cinema of Iran


There Is No Evil (Mohammad Rasoulof)

Jean-Luc Godard once remarked that the most illuminating film on the concentration camps would deal with the everyday routine of the camp guards. Rasoulof’s Golden Bear winner, There Is No Evil, takes off from a similar idea, imagining four stories of soldiers in Iran’s army whose responsibility it is execute prisoners sentenced to death. The first of the four episodes in the film deals with the home life of a middle-aged executioner, not a soldier, but a freelancer who carries out assembly-line executions in batches. In the second segment, a young musician, newly recruited to the execution unit of the army, refuses to kill and tries to hold his ground. One of his mates in the army, who doesn’t have these scruples about simply carrying out orders, constitutes the subject of the film’s third part. The final section revolves around another middle-aged physician who had, as a youth, refused to kill prisoners and was forced to be underground ever since. So the four episodes echo each other in direct ways: the hangman of story 1 could be the older version of the soldier in story 3, just as the doctor of story 4 could be the elderly equivalent of the renegade of story 2; stories 2 and 3 themselves are mirror images of each other, as are consequently 1 and 4, exploring two opposed attitudes faced with the compulsion of having to act against your conscience.

Working within a broadly mainstream narrative idiom, Rasoulof gives different textures to the four episodes. The first segment unfolds like a short story, immersing us into the domestic minutiae of a middle-aged head of the family. We see him pick up his wife from work, drive her to the bank, prepare meals for his ailing mother, go out with his family for pizza, shop at the supermarket and dye his wife’s hair for a wedding the following day. He gets up before dawn, heads for his work, where he pushes a button to send half a dozen prisoners to death. The ending shocks us, all the more because it comes at the end of a series of quotidian activities. It’s all part of a day’s work for the man, inured to the executions. The anxiety induced by this ending is sustained till the end by the second episode, an existentialist parable shot with the fluidity of a video game, in which a conscientious rookie executioner breaks out of the army camp by tying up the guards. The third, the longest and arguably the weakest section of the film, is novelistic in its examination of a personal relationship broken irreparably by the guilt of a soldier who has just killed his lover’s idol. Despite the ample presence of barren, rural exteriors, the closing episode is essentially a chamber play about a simmering family secret that is the consequence of a physician’s desertion from the duties of an executioner. While the film’s subject matter will dominate discussions about it—as it should; Rasoulof was sentenced to a year in prison following the Berlin premiere of the film—it’s the director’s versatility and stylistic nuance that register foremost.

Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)

Lee’s latest film is an action-adventure tale based on a pretty incredible outline: four Black Vietnam war veterans return to erstwhile battlegrounds in order to recover a chest full of gold bars they had buried forty years ago. The consignment, we are told, belonged to the US government, which sought to pay mercenary troops with it, but “Stormin'” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), their unit leader, now dead, convinced them that the gold must be used for the racial reparations that America hasn’t been willing to voluntarily make. As the “Bloods” trace and recover the gold, running into volunteer minesweepers and undefined guerrilla outfits, Paul (Delroy Lindo), the only fleshed-out character of the group, begins to succumb to greed and war trauma. This already eclectic, charged outline allows Lee to weave in quick history lessons as well as contemporary political talking points without upsetting the genre framework. He is literally delivering a Geschichtsunterricht when he intermittently cuts to photos of figures from Black political and cultural history that his characters regularly evoke in seeming self-satisfaction. But for the most part, the adventure story progresses robustly, with both character development and pamphleteering kept on the sidelines.

A film professor, Lee is very well aware that Hollywood movies tend to enforce a form of historical revisionism and that he is working within a subgenre that comes loaded with certain cinematic, social and philosophical baggage. On one hand, he is making yet another war fantasy in which Americans come out trumps. But he is also parodying, reconfiguring the image the Vietnam war—the ‘American war’ as the Vietnamese characters put it—has in the minds of movie audiences. Locating the Civil Rights Movement within the context of the Cold War, as the opening newsreel footage does, Lee’s film casts the Vietnam war as one without cause for the Blacks, one in which Black soldiers were sent to the front along with whites, even as they were denied equal rights back home—this injustice falling in the long line of unreciprocated acts of patriotism by Black people (ask not what the country can do for you etc.) Politically astute as he is, Lee inscribes this racial contradiction within the larger colonial context of Western presence in Indochina. While this trip is a therapy and even a means to racial justice for the Bloods, for the Vietnamese, their invasive, re-colonizing presence (first as soldiers, then as tourists—“they didn’t need us; we should’ve just sent McDonalds”, remarks one Blood) only revives the terrible injustices of an unequal war. Whatever they are back home, the Bloods are, for the rest of the world, GI Joes. Lee acknowledges this by periodically puncturing the film’s identification with the Bloods by testing it against the Vietnamese’s view of them, and also by including archival image of the war violence the Vietnamese suffered in the same manner that he includes photos from Black history. (Whether these images are drawn exclusively from Western sources is, however, unknown.)

The film’s various heterogenous elements don’t cohere as they would in a more classical film. But this disharmony is in keeping with Lee’s brash, all-accommodating, critic-proof style, which is hinged not just on assembling disparate formal and narrative elements, but also on ruffling simple, self-contained elements. Notice the way he cuts the plainest of conversation scenes to the point of upsetting spatial coherence. Conversely, he employs a more cohesive sequencing where a more frenetic composition is de rigueur, namely the battle scenes. The abrupt, almost cavalier manner in which he ends scenes is apparently agnostic to the emotional value scenes. If, at times, these cutaways seem premature, at several other places, they undercut the melodrama rather wittily. Finally, the fable-like quality of the story serves as a rather powerful mould for Lee’s political vision, all the more so because it is so general, so apolitical. The tale of a group of idealists losing their idealism under the temptation of individual, material gain goes perfectly with the parable of renewed racial solidarity the filmmaker wants to narrate. In the process, Lee is contributing to a new foundational narrative of America erected on popular Black mythology—what Birth of a Nation (1915) was for the Southerners, Lincoln (2012) was for the Unionists, or America, America (1963) was for immigrants.

Days (Tsai Ming-liang)

I haven’t closely followed Tsai’s work since Visage (2009), and because I regularly find myself disappointed by one-time favourites, I expected some amount of disillusionment with Days. I am relieved to report that Days is not just a fine film, but also one of Tsai’s most representative and resonant works. The filmmaker’s eternal muse, Lee Kang-sheng, plays a lonesome pisciculturist (?) who is ailing from some kind of nervous disorder. He travels to a city, or perhaps to another country, for treatment. In parallel, we see the everyday life of a young man, played by Anong Houngheuangsy, who lives out of his suitcase in a loft in a urban commercial complex. In long stretches, we see him prepare his meals and get ready for work. He works at a small clothing retailer at night and also freelances as a gay masseur. He meets Lee when the latter hires him for a full-body massage at his hotel room.

As is his custom, Tsai develops this outline very sparsely. In extended shots, we see either character performing one particular action. In the process, Anong’s modest but devoted meal preparation assumes a dignified, nearly religious quality, not unlike Lee’s perambulations as a Buddhist monk in Tsai’s earlier films. But Tsai’s sensorial radar is much wider and picks out the voluptuousness of everyday objects and settings. He is a filmmaker sensitive to the household textures of the Asian working class: patches on the wall left behind by the previous tenants of Anong’s loft, where probably lived children, its ivory-tinted doors of compressed-wood, the pastel-coloured tiles of the bathroom, the polish of fluorescent light as reflected on Anong’s humid skin, the extra-green vegetables he chops into an extra-red container, the reflection from his triangle-shaped steel ear piercing, the various objects of recycled plastic around the studio all compose a veritable symphony of the inanimate.

There has always been an undercurrent of ‘post-apocalyptic spirituality’ in Tsai’s cinema, a ‘neo-animist’ generosity that finds possibilities of rapture and communion in the most modern, lifeless settings. But equally, his work taps into the sensual charge that the human figure can have on screen. Critics often talk about the presence of a star, but Lee here is reduced to just that, a presence: at many places, his body is hardly anything more than still life. Even so, our attention is riveted on the human figure (no more than two or three shots in the film without it). I also believe that the current health crisis might have sharpened my (our?) general sensitivity to the human presence on screen: in their complete lack of human figures, for instance, the shots in James Benning’s Maggie’s Farm (2020) are haunted by an absence, crying to be ‘filled up’. All this to say that the super-erotic, super-relaxing massage sequence is only different in degree, and not in kind, from the rest of the film; a different note on the same scale.

There’s no intellectual algebra to be performed here. Tsai films loneliness, and the refuge from it offered by fleeting intimacy. That’s his great subject, the way reincarnation is for Apichatpong or romantic entanglements are for Hong. He also likes filming Lee (one is the corollary of the other). Here, as in the past thirty years, he films Lee eating, sleeping, walking, just sitting or staring into the void. Now, additionally, he also films him ailing, suffering, undergoing treatments and perhaps healing—making the film a sequel of sorts to I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006). It’s Warhol, on a less playful, more spiritual key. This inextricable nature of Lee’s presence in Tsai’s cinema is also the reason the equally important presence of the second actor, Anong, introduces a somewhat unsettling note. Days is, quite unequivocally, a series of contrasts between Anong’s blooming, young physique and Lee’s older, hurting body. Is Tsai changing muses, committing a form of artistic adultery? The film ends, not on Lee, but on Anong’s wandering on the city sidewalk, fidgeting with a sappy music box Lee has handed him—a decision that lends the preceding, wonderful shot of Lee’s face in the morning a valedictory aura. Tsai’s next project will, no doubt, throw more light on this seeming transition.

Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu)

Five Russian characters, variously of aristocratic and bourgeois background, assemble at a chateau somewhere in Mitteleuropa in winter and debate religion, morality, metaphysics, politics and aesthetics, as silent butlers serve them lunch, snacks, tea and dinner around the clock. Puiu simply parachutes us into this situation with no introductory information. Who are these people, why are they discussing these topics in French, and most importantly, why does no one give up? As the conversations progress, we learn that it’s sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. It is plain that the two men and the three women are all grappling with the intellectual upheavals of their times. Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) is appalled by the desacralization of military duty, Edouard (Ugo Broussot) believes it’s Europe’s mission to civilize the entire world, Olga (Marina Palii) is convinced that a pacificism rooted in Christian teachings is the key to the question of violence, Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard) plays the devil’s advocate to her, taking the philosophical foundations of Christianity to its absurd limits, and Madeline (Agathe Bosch) assumes a moderating voice. Extremely polite and formal, the exchange reeks of sexless, stereotypically Caucasian sangfroid, even when it’s intimidating and contemptuous.

If there ever was a clinching argument for dubbing foreign films over subtitling them, this is it. It’s not just that the characters never stop talking. It’s that as you are reading the subtitles, you are likely to miss the minimal physical action unfolding on screen—just like the video where you don’t notice a bear crossing as you are busy observing the basketball being passed. Puiu expressly uses physical action to counterpoint the incessant pontification. All through, the butlers, especially the head steward Istvàn (Istvàn Teglàs) on whose movement Puiu often begins his extremely long but imperceptible shots, wander about serving refreshments to the five statue-like speakers, who are almost oblivious to their presence. They are also attending to the sixth aristocrat in the house, a bedridden general, who needs to be bathed, clothed and fed. At exactly the one-hour mark, Olga faints to the ground, producing the first significant movement, and the first break in the discussion, in the film to our great delight. Puiu’s curious but detached camera observes the speakers from a close distance, slightly panning left and right to follow a character now and then. Characters are regularly framed against doors and windows and, in conjunction with the many framed elements of the décor, are rendered as static and stuck-in-time as the furnishings.

Whether one finds these debates riveting, like I did, or insufferable is a matter of taste, but what is evident is that Puiu is interested in more than the subject matter of these discussions. Like in a William Wyler film, the working class is constantly present at the margins of a bourgeois chamber drama that takes centre stage. And this dialectical presence, along with the increasing clarity that we are close to 1905, forebodes a turbulence that comes, sure enough, in the middle of the film. We perceive that the supreme refinement and courtesy with which the debates take place, in fact, conceal a violence that is a response to the ethnic, nationalist and class agitations Russia and its bourgeoisie are facing at the time. The extremely hierarchized, class-coded relations of the butlers within themselves—exemplified by Istvàn striking one of the manservants under him for spoiling the coffee—provide a picture of the larger social structure outside the chateau.

But more than Wyler, it’s Buñuel that Malmkrog frequently recalls; whence the subterranean humour of the film. While its apparent why the characters are indoors—they’re snowed in—it’s absurd the way they refuse to perform even the smallest of physical gestures, like moving a chair or passing the plate. It’s patent that they can’t do an errand even if their life depended on it. We get the impression at the very beginning of the film that, for all their lofty discourse about the destiny of Europe and the meaning of war, the bunch is oblivious to the ferment right under its nose. When, in the middle of the film, the butlers don’t respond to their call, the characters sit at the table in disbelief, ringing the bell again and again as though that will set things straight. The punchline for this setup comes when the group is promptly sprayed down by a line of bullets. At the same time, despite this deliciously morbid humour, Puiu doesn’t undermine his characters or their beliefs, as is discernible from the way he arranges the six chapters of the film non-linearly. What the characters debate over, in the final analysis, are important philosophical questions in their own right. It’s just that their idealism is superseded by events that may only be made sense from a materialist perspective. So, in a way, these are tragic figures, spirited away by History just as they think they’re approaching enlightenment.

24 Frames

24 Frames, Abbas Kiarostami’s last film, begins with a brief description of its genesis. The late master tells us that he wanted to imagine the before and after of still images—one painting and 23 of his own photographs—by supplementing it with four-and-a-half minutes of additional footage, animated or filmed. Why he chooses 24 frames is fairly obvious, but why four and a half minutes? I suspect it’s a musical idea and the number does remind one of John Cage’s 4’33”; some of the musical pieces used in the film are just about that length. On a conceptual level, 24 Frames operates close to the structuralist mode of Five and the photograph-oriented poetics of The Roads of Kiarostami. The 24 numbered vignettes that constitute it, however, contain no accompanying text or voiceover, and take place within a fixed frame. Through computer-animated imagery and the sound mix, they imagine the negative space of the photographs: the stretch of time whose absence structures the presences within them. This stretch of time registers via the actions depicted: falling snow, trees swaying to the wind, waves at the beach, animals and birds eating, brooding, lazing, copulating, and generally being around in the frame. There’s a touch of sentimentalism in the vignettes in their focus on animals pairing up amidst the harsh weather. Romance, as Phil Coldiron observes, has been an anathema to experimental filmmaking and this appearance of love as a structural concept within an ontological examination of cinema is, despite my programmed discomfort, a welcome and perhaps even a radical idea.

The first vignette takes as its basis the only painting used in the film: Pieter Breughel’s iconic The Hunters in the Snow, which has a privileged existence in cinema, having previously appeared in several films including those of Tarkovsky. (It also has a privileged existence in my room: a copy hangs next to the Hitchclock™.) Kiarostami animates the painting not by changing or removing any of its elements, but by adding extraneous components such as smoke from a chimney of the house in the middle ground, a pair of cows crossing the horizontal, snow-covered road in the distance, a mutt that makes its way around the hunting dogs and a couple of additional crows. The manner in which the animation calls attention to only the incremental modifications to the painting is characteristic of the rest of the film, in which movement is played off against static constituents of the frame. The fact that it’s the chimney that is the first animated element gets to the heart of Breughel’s overwhelming canvas, which is most of all an ode to the feeling of homecoming, to the notions of domesticity, warmth, belonging and society. The spectre of The Hunters in the Snow looms large over the other vignettes of the film, both in its imagination of the possibility of companionship in a hostile environment and the oppositions between warm and cold, inside and outside, home and the world.

On a formal level, a tension between X- and Z-axes—horizontality and depth—characterizes most of the 24 vignettes. This, to be sure, is the basis of much of representative visual art that seeks to furnish a three-dimensional model of the world. But Kiarostami films his subjects symmetrically and head on, without any vanishing point in the compositions, not giving us any depth markers. He uses windows, pillars, fences and other foreground elements as framing supports. In some of the vignettes, he confines the “action”—and hence our attention—to a specific point in the frame, not unlike the handling of humans lost in the landscape in the Koker trilogy (recall our eyes fixated on Hossein vanishing into the field at the end of Through the Olive Trees): two crows huddling at the corner of the image, lions seen mating through a natural alcove in the landscape, swallows fighting for a hole in the snow. Sometimes there’s a counterintuitive piece of accompanying music, a choral work, an opera or a folk or pop song, which runs for the length of a shot—a structural device reminiscent of James Benning. And like Benning, 24 Frames registers incremental changes in the ambiance: slowly varying light and whether conditions, the advancing profile of wet sand on beach, a progressing deforestation mostly suggested on the soundtrack.

Except for vignette 15 with a group of tourists staring at the Eiffel Tower and the last one with a woman in front of a screen, we don’t see people in 24 Frames. Human presence is, however, felt all through, either in the form of the unseen hunters killing or threatening the creatures in the shot or through the existence of a framing perspective, a gaze, as is the case with the second vignette in which we see a pair of horses through the window of a moving car. Like in Breughel’s painting, Kiarostami’s film invokes an eternal struggle between man and nature, the former trying to constantly impose his will on his environment. A number of sequences end the same way they begin, suggesting cycles of nature that override human presence. The four seagulls perched on four posts at a beach in vignette 8 are driven away by a mass of birds approaching land; four other seagulls occupy that place once the canvas is empty. In vignette 14, birds on the road are dispersed by approaching bikes, only to assemble on the road again. Likewise, the vignettes embody a dialectic between man’s creative and destructive tendencies. The hunters are certainly destroying nature but, as Breughel’s painting hints, it is this practice that has made civilization possible. The architectural elements that frame nature in the vignettes are products of human will to shape order from the chaos and rapaciousness of nature. 24 Frames itself, with its CGI-enabled animation and microscopic orchestration of natural behaviour, is a testament to these Apollonian instincts.

Death hangs in the air, both in the form of the hunters shooting down animals as well as in the winter atmosphere. In trying to animate photos, Kiarostami brings to surface the violence underlying beauty of his photographs. In his last work, Roland Barthes wrote that photos of people carry a sense of “double loss”: they are pointers to people no more, but also reminders that these people will have died in the time after these photographs were made. Kiarostami’s expansion of still photographs into “motion picture” incarnates Barthes’ definition of the photograph as the “image which produces Death while trying to preserve life.” Cinema is, of course, only a trickery that projects photographs at a rapid rate to give the illusion of continuous time. Kiarostami, whose work has always ensured the viewer is aware of the production of this illusion, pulls the curtains in the last vignette: a computer screen plays a film clip at such a slow rate that it disintegrates into a series of incrementally varying photographs. In other words, the opposite of 24 Frames. It’s an apt and beautiful end to a heartbreakingly lyrical body of work that, over thirty years, has genuinely expanded our conception of what cinema can be.

Generation Wealth

Lauren Greenfield’s latest work, Generation Wealth, finds her taking a plunge into a world of excesses, a culture obsessed with wealth, youth, beauty, sex, and power – permanent fixtures in her work as a photographer. Re-purposing material from her projects of the past thirty years, she reflects on the West’s continued fascination with having more, while also trying to understand her own fascination with this ideal. Generation Wealth is therefore a self-curated retrospective of sorts, a self-psychoanalysis, that brings into conversation topics as varied as high lifestyle of celebrity kids, eating disorders, plastic surgeries, new billionaires of the Communist world, pornography and the economic recession. While some of the connections seem strained and forced into a narrative, Greenfield’s conviction that these phenomena cannot be seen in isolation is admirable. Assembled using photographs from her previous projects and new interviews with the same subjects today, Generation Wealth weaves a Christian narrative of temptation, sin and redemption, complete with a pat message at the end.

A visual anthropologist by training, Greenfield admits that her method consists of documenting extreme examples in order to understand the mainstream. Through her VIP access to celebrity life (she comes in a line of Harvard graduates and went to the same elite schools as some of her subjects), she assembles a veritable freak parade of lost souls: a bus driver who went beyond her means for her plastic surgeries, a vulgar trader who was pursued by the FBI for fraud, a star-kid from LA who took to drugs, a toddler from the hinterlands who was catapulted to national fame, a stock broker who’s trying to conceive through IVF, a porn star who’s been through the unimaginable. Greenfield unveils their testimonies in bits and pieces and we are not sure until the end about what their current situation in life is. This withholding of information creates an unsavoury suspense that cheapens the investigation.

Greenfield has the unenviable knack of picking up the corniest lines from her interviews. She uses the most unflattering camera and editing choices, constantly undercutting her interviewees to make them look sorry or stupid. Subjects and authorities are clearly differentiated and grand-sounding theories about fame and money abound. We hardly get to hear from “the other side” without a judgment tacked on and this un-dialectical approach is aggravated by Greenfield’s simplistic association of words and images (capitalism + flashy disco lights). Having shown her interviewees’ failings, Greenfield proceeds to redeem them all by crosscutting their present-day situation – all of them having grateful meals with their children, choreographed for the camera – enshrining parenthood as the primordial purpose of life.

Of course, all this exploration brings Greenfield back to herself. In a criticism that’s actually complimentary, she equates her own workaholism with her subject’s fixation with more and more. In extended interviews with her parents and children, she meditates on the burden of legacy and the history of parental neglect as a source of success-obsession. There’s a shade of tragedy in that Greenfield is able to relate to her children only through her work and here she appears to be coming to terms with her anxieties about her own history as a mother. In a final scene reminiscent of JR’s Women are Heroes, her interviewees come to her new photo-exhibition (of which this film is an offshoot). They look back condescendingly on their younger selves, thankful for Greenfield for reminding them where they are from. The line between personal art and narcissism is thin and Generation Wealth often mistakes the latter for the former.

Everybody Knows

With Everybody Knows, Asghar Farhadi returns to Europe, this time to Spain whose harvest-season sun illuminates this story of open secrets and family intrigues. The setting also enables Farhadi to linger on some curious social rituals and gestures. Penelope Cruz’s Laura returns from Argentina with her teenage daughter for the wedding of her younger sister in Spain. Her birthplace is a medieval town with cobbled streets where her once land-owning family has been living for generations. Living in the same town is her old flame Paco (Javier Bardem) who manages the vineyards he once bought from Laura at a difficult time. While tensions in the family are visible even before the lovingly-shot wedding set-piece, the whole fabric unravels when Laura’s daughter goes missing on the night of the wedding. The audience constructs the characters’ history and their relationships piece by piece like a jigsaw puzzle, and the final image becomes clear only when the plot resolves itself.

Farhadi’s films are thrillers that are also character-studies, and Everybody Knows is no exception. Like its predecessors, it builds leisurely towards the crucial event that causes the characters to reassess their relationships with each other. Laura’s family resents her coming to the wedding without her husband and when her daughter vanishes it releases their long-suppressed resentments towards each other: Laura’s father brawls with neighbours who took his land in a game of poker thirty years ago, her sister confronts Paco for having short-changed Laura on the purchase of the vineyards, Paco’s wife objects to his taking so much concern for his old love, Paco detests Laura’s husband for his fake religiosity, Laura’s brother-in-law suspects her husband who hasn’t helped him despite being well-off. All the suppositions the characters make as to who might be involved in the kidnapping appear valid at first glance but are contradicted by subsequent developments. It’s to the plot’s credit that it doesn’t cheat the audience when it finally does reveal the details. And Farhadi’s anti-tourist approach to locales keeps outdoor scenes to a minimum.

On the other hand, Everybody Knows doesn’t have the same tragic weight as Farhadi’s other films. As it acknowledges right away, the secret at the heart of the film is really no secret and there’s no sense that the events would’ve turned out differently had the characters chosen to treat this piece of information differently. The real prime mover of the plot is the financial strain on the family and that dilutes the force of this melodrama given its focus is elsewhere. Moreover, the characters are related to each other through details of individual history and, except for Paco’s whose class pedigree is brought up, there’s no social friction palpable either despite the fact that part of the film involves the vineyards and the workers. There’s a feeling that, notwithstanding the revelations and outbursts, there is still so much to be discovered about the characters. That nobody really knows. As is usual for Farhadi, the actors carry the bulk of the film’s signifying burden and Barden and Cruz are always interesting presences. Mention must be made of the perversity of picking up the most beautiful people in the world and running them through less-than-beautiful situations: a dishevelled, frazzled Bardem in shorts sitting on his bed watching videos with earphones, a sleep-deprived Cruz lying face-down for an injection to the derriere.

It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. Best because a dizzying number of big and important projects surfaced this year and worst because I haven’t even been able to see even a fraction of that number, even though my film viewing hit an all-time high this December, That last bit was possible thanks to the city’s major international film festival, the first full-fledged fest that I’ve ever attended – a key event as far as my cinephilia is concerned. Although, I must admit, none of the new titles I saw at the fest blew me away, I was surprised by a handful of films that I think deserve wider exposure. (I’m thinking specifically of Jean-Jacques Jauffret’s debut film Heat Wave, a tragic, graceful hyperlionk movie in which piecing together the disorienting geography of Marseilles becomes as important as piecing together the four intersecting narratives.) Instead of continuing apologetically to emphasize my viewing gaps and to rationalize the countless number of entries on my to-see list, I present you another list, The Top 10 Films I Didn’t See This Year: (1) House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello, an indisputable masterpiece, probably) (2) Seeking the Monkey King (Ken Jacobs) (3) Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan) (4) This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi/Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) (5) Century of Birthing (Lav Diaz) (6) Life Without Principle (Johnnie To) (7) The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev) (8) Hugo (Martin Scorsese) (9) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) (10) La Havre (Aki Kaurismaki). Now that that’s out of my system, here are my favorites from the ones I did get to see.

1. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr/Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary)


The Turin HorseFor a number of films this year, the end of the world became some sort of a theme park ride taken with ease, but none of them ventured as far as Béla Tarr’s mesmerizing, awe-inspiring farewell to cinema. With The Turin Horse, Tarr’s filmmaking traverses the whole gamut, moving away from the wordy realist pictures of his early phase to this extreme abstraction suggesting, in Godard’s phrasing, a farewell to language itself. Centering on a man, his daughter and their horse as they eke out a skeletal existence in some damned plain somewhere in Europe, The Turin Horse is the last chapter of a testament never written, an anti-Genesis narrative that finds God forsaking the world and leaving it to beings on earth to sort it all out by themselves. Tarr’s film is a remarkable cinematic achievement, primal in its physicality and elemental in its force. Nothing this year was so laden with doom and so brimming with hope at once as the ultimate image of the film, where father and daughter – now awakened, perhaps – sit in the darkness with nothing to confront but each other.

2. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)


A SeparationAsghar Farhadi’s super-modest yet supremely ambitious chronicle of class conflict in Tehran is a massive deconstruction project that strikes right at the heart of systems that define us. Accumulating detail upon detail and soaking the film in the ambiguity that characterizes the real world, A Separation reveals the utter failure of binary logic – which not only forms the foundation of institutions such as justice but also permeates and petrifies our imagination – in dealing with human dilemmas. Farhadi’s centrism is not a form of bourgeois neutrality that plagues many a war movies, it is a recognition that truth lies somewhere in the recesses between the contours of language, law and logic. Working with unquantifiable parameters such as irrationality and doubt, Farhadi’s film is something of an aporia in the discourses that surround cinema and reality and an urgent call for revaluation of approaches towards critical problems in general. Rigorously shot, edited and directed, A Separation is a genuinely empathetic yet highly intelligent slice of reality in all its messy complexity and breathtaking grace.

3. The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick, USA)


The Tree of LifeJuxtaposing the cosmic, the macroscopic and the infinite with the particular, the everyday and the finite, Terrence Malick’s fifth film The Tree of Life seeks to ask big questions. It is here that the director’s longstanding philosophical concerns find perfect articulation and efficacy in the specific form of the film. Seamlessly shifting between perspectives both all-knowing and limited, The Tree of Life posits the existence of a single shared consciousness across time and place, only a small part of which is each human being. It is also Malick’s most phenomenological film and mostly unfolds as a series of sensory impressions that both invites and resists interpretation. An awe-instilling tug-of-war between finitude and permanence, omniscience and ignorance, narrativization and immediate experience and rationalization and incomprehension, Malick’s unabashed celebration of the birth of consciousness – in general and in specific forms – locates the particular in the universal and vice versa. What lingers in the mind more than the grand ideas, though, are extremely minor details, which is pretty much what the medium must aspire to achieve.

4. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey (Mark Cousins, UK)


The Story of FilmA scandalous history, a disproportionate sense of importance and a frustrating accent. Critic-Filmmaker Mark Cousins’ project to present the story of cinema as a 15-part TV series appears doomed right from the conceptualization stage: can you even attempt to tell a story of film without omitting whole schools of filmmaking or national cinemas? Omit it certainly does, and unapologetically so, but when Cousins chronologically hops from one country to another, halting at particular films, scenes or even shots, providing commentary that is as insightful as they come and situating them in the larger scheme of things, you wouldn’t hesitate to lower your guard. Not only does Cousins’ 900-minute tribute to filmdom introduce us to names in world cinema rarely discussed about, but also presents newer approaches to canonical entries. Admirably inclusive (Matthew Barney and Baz Luhrmann find adjacent seats, so do Youssef Chahine and Steven Spielberg) and never condescending, The Story of Film exhibits towards the history of the form a sensitivity comparable to the finest of film criticism.

5. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK)


We Need to Talk About KevinWhat is stressed in Lynne Ramsay’s rattling third feature We Need to Talk About Kevin is not only the continuity between mother and son, but also the essential discontinuity. Where does the mother end and where does the son begin? Every inch of space between actors resonates with this dreadful ambiguity. The film is as much about Eva’s birth from the stifling womb of motherhood as it is Kevin’s apparent inability to be severed from her umbilical cord. Every visual in Ramsay’s chronicle of blood and birth works on three levels – literal, symbolic and associative – the last of which links the images of the film in subtle, subconscious and thoroughly unsettling ways. For the outcast Eva, the past bleeds into the present and every object, sound and gesture becomes a living, breathing reminder of whatever has been put behind. Ramsay’s intuitive, sensual approach to colour, composition and sound locates her directly in the tradition of the Surrealists and deems this unnerving, shattering, personal genre work as one of the most exciting pieces of cinema this year.

6. Life In A Day (Various, Various)


Life in a DayAn heir to the ideas of Dziga Vertov and Aleksandr Medvedkin, Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day is a moving, bewildering, charming, frustrating and dizzying snapshot of Planet Earth in all its glory, stupidity and complexity on a single day in 2011. An endless interplay of presence and absence, familiar and exotic, lack and excess, similarity and difference, the homogenous and the un-normalizable and the empowered and the marginalized, Life in a Day is a virtually inexhaustible film that is a strong testament to how many of us lived together on this particular planet on this particular day of this particular year. (That it represents only a cross section of the world population is a complaint that is subsumed by the film’s observations.) Each shot, loaded with so much cultural content, acts as a synecdoche, suggesting a dense social, political and historical network underneath. Most importantly, it taps right into the dread of death that accompanies cinematography: the heightened awareness of the finitude of existence and experience and the direct confrontation with the passing of time.

7. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, UK)


Kill ListOn the surface, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List comes across like a sick B-movie with a mischievous sense of plotting, but on closer examination, it reveals itself as a serious work with clear-cut philosophical and political inclination. That its philosophy is inseparable from its mind-bending narrative structure makes it a very challenging beast. Kill List is the kind of kick in the gut that video games must strive to emulate if they aspire to become art. Indeed, Wheatley’s chameleon of a film borrows much from video games – from its division of a mission into stages announced by intertitles to the third-person-shooter aesthetic that it segues into – making us complicit with the protagonist and his moral attitude, later pulling the rug from our feet and leaving us afloat. Early in the film, Iraq war veteran and protagonist Jay mumbles that it was better if he was fighting the Nazis – at least, he would know who the enemy was. He learns the hard way that this ‘othering’ of the enemy into a mass of unidentifiable groups is a psychological strategy to protect and redeem himself, that it’s judgment that defeats us.

8. Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, Australia)


Sleeping BeautyYour vagina will be a temple” one elderly procurer assures Lucy, a twenty something university student who takes up odd jobs to pay her fees. Not only is the vagina a temple in Julia Leigh’s markedly assured debut feature, but the human body itself is a space that is to be furnished, maintained and rented out for public use. Leigh’s vehemently anti-realist examination of continuous privatization of the public and publicization of the private works against any kind of psychological or sociological realism, instead unfolding as an academic study of the human body as a site of control. Setting up a dialectic between pristine, clinical public spaces and messy, emotional private ones, Sleeping Beauty attempts to explore not our relationship to the spaces that we inhabit, but also to the space that we ourselves are. Consistently baffling and irreducible, Leigh’s film displays an eccentric yet surefooted approach to design, composition and framing, revealing the presence of a personality beneath. Sleeping Beauty is, for me, the most impressive debut film of the year.

9. The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France)


The Kid with a BikeThe Dardenne brothers have turned out to be the preeminent documentarians of our world and their latest wonder The Kid with a Bike sits alongside their best works as an unadorned, incisive portrait of our time. Admittedly inspired by fairly tales, Dardennes’ film might appear like an archetypal illustration of innocence lured by the devil, but its parameters are all drawn from here and now. Structured as a series of transactions – persons, objects, moral grounds – where human interaction is inextricably bound to the movement of physical objects, the film presents our world as one defined by exchanges of all kind, but never reduces this observation to some cynical reading of life as a business. Also characteristic of Dardennes’ universe is the intense physicality that pervades each shot. Be it the boy scurrying about on foot or on bike or the countless number of doors that are opened and closed, the Dardennes, once more, show us that cinema must concern itself with superficies and it is on the surface of things that one can find depth.

10. The Monk (Dominik Moll, France/Spain)


The MonkDominik Moll’s adaptation of Matthew Lewis’ eponymous novel concerning a self-righteous priest tempted by the devil could be described as an intervention of late nineteenth century tools – psychoanalysis and cinema – into a late eighteenth century text. Located on this side of the birth of psychoanalysis, Moll’s film comes across as essentially Freudian in the way it portrays the titular monk as a human being flawed by design and the church, society and family as institutions responsible for suppressing those basic impulses. Incest, rape and murder abound as hell breaks loose, but the film’s sympathy is clearly with the devil. The Monk uses an array of early silent cinema techniques including a schema that combines an impressionistic illustration of the protagonist’s sensory experience and expressionistic mise en scène to signal his irreversible descent into decadence. Alternating between metallic blues of the night and sun bathed brown, Moll’s film teeters on the obscure boundary between Good and Evil. Exquisitely composed and expertly realized, The Monk supplies that irresistible dose of classicism missing in the other films on this list.

“The truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth.”

Rumi

 

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[This post is my final contribution to Sheila O’Malley’s Iranian Film Blogathon which concludes today. It has been an astonishing week, with dozens of insightful and informative articles and comments from across the blogosphere. A truly remarkable effort, Sheila. I hope your marvelous work paves way for lots more discussions on Iranian cinema, which, along with Chinese cinema, pretty much owned the last two decades. Cheers.]

 

Iran Zendan (2010) (Iran Prison)
Daryush Shokof
Farsi/English

 

Daryush Shokof, whose films have been my holy grail for a long time now, made Iran Prison (2010) at the wake of the 2009 presidential elections, which was marked by massive waves of public unrest. An open hate letter to the Ahmadinejad regime, the hour long film depicts the inhuman treatment of captured demonstrators in underground cells, which ranges from physical mutilation to murder. These scenes are shot mostly interior, in low-lit chiaroscuro arrangements with an earthy color tone, with handheld recorders and non-professional actors (Shokof casts himself as the supervisor of the facility). This thread of the film reminds one of Wang Bing’s Brutality Factory (2007), in the way it religiously narrows down its scope to merely recording the torture sessions. However, unlike Wang Bing’s movie, which situates itself in the past in order to open it up for contemporary analysis, Shokof’s film is almost totally anti-dialectical and it works upon a given set of firm beliefs and a clear cut ideology. But ‘objectivity’ or ‘nuanced’ synthesis is not its objective, in any case, and it is probably more fruitful to look at the film as a solidarity picture supporting the cause of the protestors against the Islamist regime than as an elaborate critique. Intercut with this fictional recreation of the torture sessions are amateur, low quality video clips (obtained from online video sites, I guess) of mass protests in the streets of Tehran, in which we see young men and women directly confronting the police, often with brutal consequences. This jarring (geographical, cinematic, political) contrast between the two narratives is, additionally, suggestive of Shokof’s own status as an outsider deeply involved with the situation in his home country.

(Posted as part of Sheila O’Malley’s Iranian Film Blogathon, 21st-27th February)

 


Yek Atash (1961) (A Fire)
Ebrahim Golestan
Iran
24 Min.

 

The oldest Iranian film I’ve seen, Ebrahim Golestan’s short documentary A Fire (1961), chronicles an incident of fire at the oil wells near Ahwaz, Iran, that raged for several months and the relentless efforts to put it out. Edited by poet and Golestan’s partner Forough Farrokhzad, A Fire seemingly plays out as a straightforward reportage, although made about three years late. The firefighting is carried out mainly during the night time and we see silhouettes of men spraying water and of machines trying to clear the debris from the spot of the accident. (The men look like silhouettes even in daylight, thanks to heavy carbon deposits on their bodies). The narrator, speaking in English, tells us that the fire has been on for such a long time that it has become a part of the local landscape. Golestan (who, by the way, made one of the finest Iranian films I’ve seen) digresses regularly from the happenings at the centre to observe the impact of the fire on the residents of the adjacent village and the firefighters themselves. When we are told that the villagers were relocated in order to avoid being poisoned by the residual gases. (We are later informed that the well was shut down and another site was captured for the mining operation). The plight of the firefighters, on the other hand, is even more affecting. Assigned to some of the most life-threatening tasks by the American site managers, they appear as if resigned to fate, their eyes betraying a deep fatigue that’s more than just physical, their bodies (literally) moving ever closer to death, like moth flies approaching a light source. However, Golestan’s film stands in stark contrast to Herzog’s beautiful and atrocious decontextualization game, Lessons of Darkness (1992), in that it recognizes that its subjects are not fuelled by madness, but charcoaled by despair.

(This post comes as a part of the splendid Iranian Film Blogathon hosted by Sheila O’Malley)

 

Kiseye Berendj (1998) (Bag Of Rice)
Mohammad Ali-Talebi
Farsi

 

Bag of RiceMohammad Ali-Talebi’s (aptly) modestly titled Bag of Rice (1998) is the sort of film that is generally associated with Iranian cinema, thanks in no small part to the works of Majid Majidi: a drama of everyday events shot on location, with little or no music, usually involving children maneuvering through narrow bylanes in the outskirts of Tehran. These are, no doubt, conservative films that attempt to represent the country on a larger scale, perhaps even serve as a right-wing corrective to the ‘scandalous’ festival films. More than any other film of this ‘anti-movement’, it is Bag of Rice that appears the most unapologetic about its stance. Evil does not exist in Talebi’s film, at least as an active agent. Bad things happen not because of bad deeds, but just due to accidents. Even in films such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or Rio Bravo (1959), there is at least a notion of evil (in the form of a social pervert or an outsider) which is utilized to build a case for conservatism. Not in Bag of Rice, a film that reveals itself as one of the most ethical and effective defences of that ideology. Every one in the city offers to help the old woman and the little girl who travel to the city to buy the titular sack of rice. One person’s task is distributed – like the rice in the bag – and executed willingly by a group. Both grandma and the kid have their own needs and (voluntary) responsibilities that play tug-of-war with each other, but the pair works through them amicably. Although the scenario keeps highlighting the financial crunch of its characters, conflict between classes is dissolved into an organic, throbbing, seamless and wholesome portrait of a community, in which clashes of interest, instead of rupturing relationships, are resolved through compassion and understanding. When the little girl wears the scarf for the first time towards the end, during a ceremony of communal good will, one wonders whether to read through the fissures of the film’s hardline, pro-revolution message or to appreciate the graciousness of what’s on the plate.

(Posted as part of the ongoing Iranian Film Blogathon at Sheila O’Malley‘s. Formidable collection of articles on Iranian cinema building up…)

The Rook (1974)
Ali Akbar Sadeghi
Iran
10 Min.

 

Renowned painter and filmmaker Ali Akbar Sadeghi’s The Rook (1974) is a hilarious short animation based on a quick little game of chess. The idea of bringing the game to life, in itself, isn’t a terribly novel thing. Many people, like me, would have wondered how a film based on chess would pan out, given the inherent capacity for not only sadism and spectacle, but even analysis of class, war and bipolar politics. (Kubrick’s chess movie is probably the closest one comes to witnessing such a treatment). Sadeghi, given that he was working for the Kanun, undermines the scope for gratuitous violence throughout, instead opting for a Lego-like version of the war. The result is nearly as hysterical as Pudovkin’s and Shpikovsky’s brilliant comedy based on the game Chess Fever (1925). Sadeghi’s style of animation (that seems to have died out now and which one used to see so often in government sponsored animation programmes in India) generally consists of two planes of action, which appear as if they are sliding one beneath the other, and involves hand-drawn sketches animated to puppet-like gestures marked by repetition and rigidity. And the director uses this rigidity to great effect in The Rook. The kamikaze match (which actually sticks religiously to the rules of the game), right till its recursive, anti-climactic showdown is full of absurdities, not only in the way each move is presented, but also in the playing strategy itself. I don’t know if I should understand it as a remark on the absurdity of war or on the absurdity of the game, but Sadeghi sure harnesses the absurdity of the medium to its fullest here.

(Posted as part of the ongoing Iranian Film Blogathon at Sheila O’Malley‘s. Do check out the rich collection there)


 

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