Cinema of Romania


In Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation (2016), a physician tries to have his daughter’s exam scores doctored in exchange for letting a local official bypass the waiting list for a liver transplant. As a loving father and someone whose own hopes about a new life in post-Revolution Romania was dashed, he wants his child to leave the country for better prospects in Western Europe. Through this low-key story about the moral conflicts of a middle-class family, the film diagnoses what it sees as grave maladies afflicting contemporary Romania: the comprehensive erosion of public institutions by political mafia and crooked officials, the deep distrust between social classes, the disenchantment of the younger generation with their predecessors, and the concomitant brain drain towards the West.

These thematic undercurrents of Graduation become the very subject matter of Alexander Nanau’s compelling non-fiction work Collective (2019), nominated for the Best Documentary and Best International Feature awards at the Oscars this year. The film borrows its title from a nightclub in Bucharest that caught fire during a heavy metal concert in October 2015, killing 27 young people. The incident provoked nationwide protests against the ruling Social Democratic (PSD) government, whose shady licensing practices were believed to be at the source of the tragedy. The Prime Minister resigned, putting in place an interim government of politically unaffiliated technocrats for one year. This, Nanau’s film shows us, didn’t provide any hint of a solution, as the bottomless corruption of the system continued to take its toll on those who survived the disaster.

More than thirty of the survivors, who suffered relatively minor, less-than-fatal burns, died over the following weeks at the public hospitals they were admitted to. Digging for the truth behind these unexpected deaths, journalist Cătălin Tolontan of The Sports Gazette discovered a series of man-made horrors: the disinfectants used at the hospitals had been dangerously adulterated at the factory, and further diluted by the hospital staff, causing deadly bacteria to infect the patients. More revelations followed: collusion of the factory owner with hospital management, procurement department and policy makers, political appointments of unqualified public officials and licensing of unfit institutions, the death of an important piece of the puzzle that may not be a suicide, bribes, fake invoices, siphoning of healthcare funds, offshoring of black money, the trail of blood seemed endless.

As a counterpoint, and a braking force, to this downward spiral, Collective offers the figure of Vlad Voiculescu, the newly appointed Minister of Health in the interim cabinet. A repatriate from Vienna and an erstwhile patients’ rights activist, he registers as an honest and empathetic official, who recognizes the institutional rot for what it is. With his slouched posture, fidgety hands and expressive gestures, he presents a human, vulnerable face of the ministry. “The state can crush people sometimes”, he confesses in his meeting with Tedy Ursuleanu, one of the survivors of the fire. whose photograph hangs in his office as an emblem of his mission. Nanau’s film intersperses images of Tedy between its coverage of Vlad and Cătălin, constantly reminding us of the object of their pursuit of justice. Tedy has outlived victims with fewer burns, and as an outlier, she indicts the system that has failed others.

What is bracing about Collective is that, amid this despondent description of graft and profiteering, it paints a poignant picture of democracy in action, making us witnesses to the movement of justice: a watchdog media that holds those in power accountable, policy makers who take feedback from media to correct course, and both of them lending their ears to the victims, whose plaint serves as a guide to action. Nanau’s film pits the capacity of a few good men—honest politicians, media personnel, conscientious whistleblowers—to effect systemic changes against a foul political-bureaucratic-mediatic complex that has every interest in snuffing out such efforts.

More pointedly, the film characterizes democracy as a long and slow process of negotiation and compromise involving the incessant interplay of individual will, institutional inertia and societal moods. There is a resistance at work in every stage of the decision-making process that tempers the forward thrust. The desire to confess failure on part of the ministry is converted into political doublespeak by its spokespersons to soften the blow to the media, the press’s impulse to go all out against the establishment is kept in check by the adverse impact it could have on the public. What is needed are radical measures, remarks Vlad, but they can’t be made in haste. His campaign to make hospital management more transparent is spun by PSD-backed TV channels into a scandal involving organ transplants.

In other words, Nanau’s film taps into the dialectical processes at play in the functioning of a democracy. The press’s instinct to foster a healthy scepticism towards the government comes up against the ministry’s job of assuring the public that things are fine behind the red tape. Even within the establishment, the Health Minister’s insistence on telling the truth about the corrupt practices of state actors cannot, however, come at the cost of defacing the state organs these actors represent. Ultimately at stake, suggests Collective, is the push-and-pull between the need for transparent governance and the imperative to nurture the trust of the public in the institutions that shape their lives.

One recent film that Collective most resembles is the American documentary City Hall (2020), Frederick Wiseman’s sprawling four-hour record of the day-to-day operations of the Boston municipal corporation. Like Wiseman’s body of work, Nanau’s film is a fly-on-the-wall account that abstains from directly addressing its audience; there are no talking heads, no on-screen texts, no voiceovers to provide us guideposts as to what is happening. The burden of the film’s signification, and its entire creative effort, instead lies in the way the material is selected and assembled. But where Wiseman limits himself, in each of his films, to one particular institution, Collective moves horizontally, following a particular investigation across institutions and ignoring the other responsibilities of these organizations.

Wiseman once said of his documentaries that “the assumption, correct or not, is that the audience has [the capacity to think]—because the only safe assumption to make about the audience is that they are as smart or dumb as the filmmaker.” This is true of Collective too, but that doesn’t mean that Nanau’s film (or Wiseman’s, for that matter) is impartial or non-partisan. Its objectivity is the product of its reluctance to spoon-feed the audience, not a surrender of all critical thought. The film ends with the 2016 Romanian elections, which saw the incumbent PSD win with a historic majority, rendering all the voting advocacy preceding the polls somewhat hollow-sounding. Vlad is in utter disbelief. His father has a meltdown over phone and asks him, a little like the doctor of Graduation, to leave the country and go back to Vienna, where he can actually serve the people. It’s a demoralizing end to a short-lived period of hope, whose effect Nanau multiplies with a shattering coda: the family of one of the victims commemorates at his grave on Christmas day, just after the election results. Theirs is a long drive back home.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

The Salt of Tears (Philippe Garrel)

A young man at a bus stop glimpses a girl across the road. She gives him directions, and they board a bus together. There’s a spark between them. They look at each other, making sure their eyes don’t meet. The girl has fallen in love, the man hopes for a sexual encounter that doesn’t happen. “I’ll never forget you”, he says before he leaves town. Weeks later, the girl sends him a card, pouring out her feelings for him. He reads it and locks it up in a drawer without a thought. It’s hard to describe The Salt of Tears, or any of Garrel’s recent films for that matter, without running the risk of making it sound like a bundle of French art movie clichés. These films are all resolutely focused on romantic and sexual entanglements between young, heterosexual people and the seemingly infinite range of emotions they sustain in the participants. Digital black and white cinematography, a voiceover articulating the protagonist’s predicament and a sweet piano score all attest to a grand decadence at work. But Garrel is able to infuse these abstract, almost archetypal character relationships with a vitality, thanks to the extremely controlled actor gestures that concentrate the whole emotional force of these relationships.

Luc (Logann Antuofermo), the young man, aspires to study carpentry on the wish of his father (a wonderful André Wilms), whom he loves and looks up to. Something of a skirt chaser and a jerk—wholly inadequate words, for Garrel is interested precisely in a detailed exploration of what these judgments and coinages mean—Luc abandons Jemila (Oulaya Amamra), the bus stop girl, because he is too cowardly to tell the truth to his current girlfriend Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte), who gets to bed with him right after they meet. He abandons Geneviève too and tells himself that he was never in love because his feelings for neither woman could overpower his professional ambition or his bond with his father. So despite being focused on the sex, Luc has a little of the tragic romantic, looking for love even though he believes that finding it with wreck all his current certainties in life. It’s a characteristically French type, also seen in Jean Paul Civeyrac’s Le Doux Amour des hommes (2002), in which a world-weary young man wants to experience a love so Deep that it will rescue him from his emotional tundra.

The strength of the writing is that it doesn’t categorise Luc’s relationships into love and sex, and instead lets them hover on a fuzzy zone between and around these poles. Why he continues to stay with Betsy (Souheila Yacoub), his third girlfriend with whose male colleague he shares a ménage à trois, is no more a mystery than why he chooses to leave Jemila and Geneviève. What is sure is that Luc destroys one life after another with his behaviour, leaving the kind of lifelong scars he himself is unconsciously wishing for. When he does find in Betsy the love he was looking for, he loses his ties with his father, as he expected and wanted, but also becomes vulnerable, beset by jealousy and helplessness. Nuances of character description aside, much of the film’s pleasures are on its surface: in the way actors look at or hold each other, in the calming interludes with Luc or his father working on pieces of wood. There is a dance scene at a disco with Luc and Betsy that is a thrilling number hinged on Betsy’s energetic, sensual movement around the floor. Someone watching The Salt of Tears without an idea of who made it might take it for the work of a 21-year old. That, I suspect, is both its strength and weakness.

Uppercase Print (Radu Jude)

Found footage filmmaking, especially the kind that seeks to perform an ideological interrogation of the past, and particularly of a socialist past, seems to have a special power to produce some astoundingly lazy works. The end of the Cold War has meant that younger audiences cannot relate to accounts of life in communist regimes except in an ironic, patronizing way. We get it: the politicians are conmen, the people sheep, the fashion corny and the media so crude and manipulative. Nothing that a video search wouldn’t throw up. To be sure, Uppercase Print isn’t wholly a found footage film. Adapted from a ‘documentary play’, Jude’s film intersperses archival footage from Romanian television shows and news reports of the early eighties with dramatizations of a police case file from the same period. The case involves pro-freedom messages written in chalk on the walls surrounding the party headquarters. The security office takes accurate measurements of the messages written in uppercase, analyses the handwriting and convicts a teenager in the locality. Jude employs a set of gigantic sound stages designed like a pie chart. He has his primly dressed actors utter lines from the report—charges against the teenager, testimonies by his family and friends, and records of the security personnel tailing him—in a declamatory manner staring at either the camera or each other. The boy confesses, but claims he was inspired by messages on Western radio, while his parents chide him and urge him to recant. His friends and teachers turn against him and his seemingly innocuous deed marks him for life (and beyond). All this dramatization goes in circles, and is pretty testing, and saps all our interest before it moves ahead narratively.

Some of the archival material is thematically linked to the case files, as when a graffiti about food shortage is cut to a TV report about new refrigerator models. But most seem to have been picked as quaint documents from the era: street interviews with traffic rule violators, Busby Berkeley-style musical numbers, televised cooking recipes, countless clips of children singing and as many of pageantry organized in honour of Nicolae Ceaușescu. With these assorted extracts, Jude may have been intending to give a picture of life in communist Romania comparable to what Harun Farocki did in How to Live in the German Federal Republic (1990). But, unfortunately, Uppercase Print doesn’t have necessary spirit of synthesis. The critique is hardly earned, and the film is even less instructive about life communist Romania than a broad comedy such as Tales from the Golden Age (2009).

To be fair, the juxtaposition of archival footage and the case files is interesting on paper. It taps into a fragility and paranoia underlying the functioning of the state which triumphalist propaganda tries to conceal: that the state perceives a boy’s zestful scribbling as a security threat is so absurdly out of step with the paeans to youth beamed across television sets. But there’s hardly anything here that hasn’t been explored already, and much more successfully, by the work of Andrei Ujică. For a film leaning so much on television footage, Uppercase Print intriguingly omits the televised struggles of the Romanian revolution itself. That’s because Jude’s film is less interested in TV as a medium than the messages its shows convey, among others the gradual incursion of capitalism into everyday life. To this end, the narrative makes a startling leap from 1985 to present day. As the camera pans across a cityscape in which large commercial banners cover drab, low-income housing, we hear the actors playing the security personnel justify their actions (of surveying and recruiting schoolchildren as informers), the implication being that these regime criminals have succeeded in blending into the anonymity of the new market economy. Nothing prepares us for this critical coup, though, and it’s a tedious journey by the time we arrive there.

Summer of 85 (François Ozon)

Whether Summer of 85 is in autobiographical in any way or not, I don’t know, but it certainly gives that impression. Adapted from the 1982 novel Dance on My Grave by British writer Aidan Chambers, the film tells the story of Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), a timid working-class teenager who finds love in a Jewish boy named David (Benjamin Voisin) after the latter rescues him from a boating accident. The year is 1985 and Alexis is 17, just about the age Ozon was at the time. When the film begins, he is in police custody, talking to us in a voiceover. As Ozon cuts between this gloomy present and the sunny few weeks preceding it, we are drawn into the mystery that looms over Alexis’s current situation and his relationship with David. We share Alexis’s confusion as David, aided by an excessively indulgent mother, seduces him, convinces him of their closeness and persuades him to work at his shop, even as David’s professor (Melvin Poupaud, the star of Ozon’s previous film, By the Grace of God (2018)) at school urges him to continue his literature studies. David seals Alexis’s trust by making a pact with him: the one who outlives the other will dance over the latter’s grave.

The ‘mystery’ itself is of no great interest; it’s Ozon’s highly cinema-aware way of unfurling it that holds the viewer’s attention. Ozon is evidently a cinephile, and while this sophistication weighed down heavily on the laborious Double Lover (2017), it treads rather lightly here. There are, firstly, the direct references to Joseph Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, which features two queer stars, not to mention gay icon Liz Taylor) in the film’s title, the poster in David’s bedroom, the plot elements of David’s mother ‘procuring’ boys for him and Alexis’s explaining the mystery through a therapeutic confession. Consciously or otherwise, Ozon also draws on several Hitckcockian elements here: a gay romance sealed by a pact (Rope, Strangers on a Train), the creepy, mollycoddling mother figure (Strangers on a Train, Psycho, Birds etc.), the beautiful sea cliff against which the action takes place (North by Northwest, Suspicion), a violent outburst at a fairground (Strangers on a Train, Stage Fright), an older teacher who solves the mystery (Rope), David’s remaking of the docile Alexis’s look (Vertigo) and Alexis’ obsession with exhuming David’s dead body (The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo). And the diminutive Alexis’s insecurity recalls Polanski’s reworking of Hitchcock. There’s a very morbid, very funny scene in a morgue involving a cross-dressed Alexis and David’s corpse that is something Hitch would’ve fondly approved of.

Like Hitchcock, Ozon seems to have precisely story-boarded his sequences to the last gesture, last glance, especially in the early stretch of the film, where the dynamic between Alexis, David and his mother is conveyed with great economy and efficacy. But Ozon is also trying to go beyond Hitchcockian mechanics to something more tender, less cynical. Once the film reveals its entire mystery about one hour in, it becomes something of a coming-of-age tale, turning its focus to Alexis’ heartbreak over David’s betrayal, his confusion with his sexual identity, his nuanced relationship to his blue-collar parents and his grief over David’s death, which was so far only a theoretical preoccupation for him and which is now seen as another betrayal. There is a good amount of nostalgia and a desire to imitate the ‘eighties aesthetic’ at work in the film, especially in its choice of costumes and colour composition, but Ozon’s sense of time and place, as always, is very sharp. Shot through what seems like a diffusion filter, the film captures the sights and sensations of summer in a memorable manner. Summer of 85 may be one of the few films set in the Normandy region that doesn’t provide a lugubrious image of the place. The muted colours and the low-income housing complexes, for once, don’t take on a moral quality. They simply are.

Genus Pan (Lav Diaz)

I haven’t followed Diaz’s work this decade as closely as I would’ve liked to. The few hours of The Halt (2019) that I saw at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival was very impressive in the way Diaz turns the film’s poverty of means into an advantage: the low-budget sci-fi atmosphere is so muted that it feels strangely contemporary. Clocking at 157 minutes—practically a short film by Diaz’s standards—Genus Pan is even more rudimentary in its production values. Three working-class men, Baldo (Nanding Josef), Paulo (Bart Guingona) and Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling), travel across the fictional island of Hugaw, returning from their temporary job. Baldo is mercenary and extracts commission money from the younger Andres, who wishes to save for his sister’s treatment. Paulo is a devout Catholic, and acts as a moderator between the other two, going so far as to reimburse Andres on behalf of Baldo. Not unlike the three characters in Stalker (1979), these men of different temperaments and beliefs wander about in a jungle where paranormal things may be happening. Hugaw, we learn, is a scarred land with several historical layers of oppression, violence and debauchery: once a trading post for intra-continental smugglers, it was successively colonized by the Spanish, the Japanese and the Americans. Today, it is ruled with an iron fist by a ruthless general who kills dissidents.

Diaz, as is his wont, is dealing in allegory, and we imagine that the island of Hugaw stands for all of Philippines. But there is also something universalist about Genus Pan, which is a reference to the undeveloped brain of the human animal. A radio broadcast tells us that many of us haven’t yet outgrown the traits of the chimpanzee. While parts of the film recall Hesus the Revolutionary (2002), the work that might be closest to this bitter, slightly misanthropic vision is Diaz’s Butterflies Have No Memories (2009), where too the political critique turns sour. The film changes rhythm once Andres comes back home to Hugaw to announce of the deaths of Baldo and Paulo. Paulo’s wife (Merly Bucong) and Baldo’s daughter (Diaz’s AD Hazel Orencio)—two of the most helpless creatures in all of Diaz’s cinema—suffer in silence, while one of the general’s slimy lackeys, Inngo (Joel Saracho in one of those sleazy roles that Diaz writes and casts so well), exploits them to exact personal revenge on Andres. The film is set days before Good Friday, and solemn processions of self-flagellating believers amplify the mournful ambience around Andres’s doomed fate. I’m certainly missing much of the social nuances of the story, especially concerning the tribes on the island, but I must add that Diaz himself abstracts much of the details, such as the Andres’ background as a dissident. It could be that these details were established in Diaz’s contribution to the omnibus film Journeys (2018) from which Genus Pan reportedly derives.

Diaz’s modus operandi is familiar: shooting almost exclusively outdoors, he plants his camera at such an angle that a deep field is carved out in the frame. There are no camera movements or musical accompaniments. Unlike The Halt, however, the deep space here remains largely static as the action unfolds in the foreground. Much of the visual interest lies in the specific ways actors enter and leave the frame or, in scenes where they don’t walk, remain scattered across it. Because Diaz shoots in vast open spaces, at times, we aren’t sure about the scale of things until the actors appear in the frame. As the film shifts to the village, the shades of the forest make way for stark sunlight; I get the impression that Diaz has deliberately overexposed his shots a little which gives a bleached out, slightly uncanny aura to human figures. There are two instances of flashback—a device I don’t recall in Diaz—including one which dramatizes a false testimony. Instances of violence are directed in a very offhand, amateurish way which, combined with the broad characterization of the general, gives the film an imperfect, agit-prop, ‘Third Cinema’ kind of quality. Finally, while the action is leisurely paced, the editing is functional, hinting at a desire to end shots quickly and move on. I think that it’s refinement at work.

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.

“Somi wears a broad smile. She’s in her late twenties—or early thirties, she doesn’t know—and pregnant with her second child. “I think it’s a girl”, she tells her husband Sukhram, five years her junior. Somi cooks, washes their clothes and takes care of their first child, while Sukhram is about the house doing nondescript work. They have a pet parrot and raise poultry in their plot of land. It might be the picture of a modest but ordinary family, except for the fact that both Somi and Sukhram are renegades from the Naxal movement who surrendered to the Indian state, got an amnesty, and were resettled under the country’s rehabilitation policy for ex-Naxals. Their “second-life”, in a colony in rural Maharashtra comprising of refugees like themselves, is the subject of a compelling new documentary titled A Rifle and a Bag, which screened online at the Visions du Réel film festival last week.

In long, fixed shots, the opening passage of the film gives us a sense of the couple’s everyday reality: scenes from domestic life, Somi’s visit to the pregnancy clinic, the couple’s conversation about their to-be-born second child. These images of quotidian life are, however, soon punctured as we learn about Somi’s past as a Naxal commander, the deadly reprisals the couple have risked in their surrender, their lingering feeling of deracination. Somi’s role as a wife and a mother is in stark contrast with her older role as a Naxal higher-up. But Somi makes no remark about this conventional distribution of labour, content instead to secure a future for her children.

A large part of A Rifle and a Bag presents the couple’s interaction with the Indian state and civil society on a day-to-day basis as part of their rehabilitation. Somi runs from pillar to post to unsuccessfully obtain a caste certificate for Sukhram, who can’t safely go back home to Chhatisgarh to get one. Without this certificate, they can’t admit their son into a school. The film develops around the central irony that Somi and Sukhram, of a tribal origin, have to identify themselves in terms the Indian state understands. The state and the civil society, though, aren’t malevolent forces. In fact, the officers, teachers and doctors whom we only hear interacting with Somi could hardly be more understanding and sympathetic. It’s the system they help function, faceless just like them, that holds Somi and Sukhram like a vice.”

 

[Full review at Silverscreen]

Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (Frank Beauvais)

To lead a more affordable life, filmmaker Frank Beauvais moved away from Paris and settled down in a remote village in the Alsace region with his then partner. In the seven years that followed, he lost his father, who had lived with him during his final days, broke up and went into a period of intense isolation and anxiety, watching over 400 films between April and October 2016. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is a record of these seven months constructed solely through images from these 400 films strung together with Beauvais fast-paced voiceover. With detachment, but not without stretches of indulgent melancholia, Beauvais talks about this life of poverty, his relation to his mother living in the region, his panic attacks, his political indecisiveness caught between a feeling for revolution and a renunciation of all action. It’s an agonising life, the straightforward dramatization of which would’ve resulted in a significantly lesser film. The stasis and claustrophobia of the existence described is given a vital momentum by the lively images, rife with movement and action, and the snappy narration. The relation between word and image is literal times, and only intuitive at others. But the surfeit of images sweeps you along, not just in its volume but also in the striking detail Beauvais picks out: predominantly close up of actions, almost no faces and a generous amount of violence and decay.

In this, Just Don’t Think is the preeminent film about cinephilia, the life in films that Truffaut called a disease and which Beauvais christens “cinéfolie”. Early on, he tells us that films are not a window to the world but mirrors, that is to say a way of life that encourages self-absorption and isolation from others, which the filmmaker is happy to do, surrounded as he is by the village’s infuriating conservatism and national pride. Hearing about the attack in Nice, he unfeelingly goes back to sleep with a cynical reasoning. Like all cinephiles—in fact, like all monomanes—Beauvais absolves this unhealthy cultural consumption by turning it into a talking point, a means to a so-called higher end. He is fully aware of this self-deception and he calls out his “Machiavellian construction” to justify this “bulimia”. He muses about the vanity of a narrative in first person, the potential collapsing of a distance from the subject that the project needs. (He can’t, of course, entirely get rid of the disingenuousness of the undertaking because, for all the talk about the malaise of cinephilia, it’s clear that he’s been using it to plan this film along the way.) Despite its contradictions and predetermined construction, Just Don’t Think is an accomplishment in the way it transforms a subject of low artistic value—one man’s emergence from a rut—into a lively, fruitful meditation on a subculture.

Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)

Fourteen traces the friendship between two young women, Mara and Jo, living in New York. They seem to naturally complement each other. The round-faced Mara (Tallie Medel) is petite, introspective and stands cross-legged. In a long shot midway, we see that she is among the last people exiting a train station upstate. Jo (Norma Kuhling) is lanky, slack-armed, constantly eating or smoking, and doesn’t think twice before correcting her friend on a turn of phrase. Jo calls Mara every time she’s in panic mode, Mara cancels her plans only to find Jo indifferent to her arrival. It’s clearly a parasitic relationship, but Mara feels compelled to fend for Jo for a reason that harks back to when they were fourteen. Both Mara and Jo hold temporary jobs and write on the side. Most of their interaction is about work; Mara fills application forms for the social worker Jo, while her own search for a permanent teaching position is a struggle. Fourteen contains some of the most realistic shop talk I’ve seen in films. It makes interesting what sounds unbearable in real life. The dialogue, in line with the Mumblecore tradition, seems improvised, which makes for some refreshing expressions (“stressball”, “cutting”, “eyeteeth”).

At several points, Fourteen jumps forward in time without warning and these blunt ellipses register the harsh blows of passing time even more strongly. The women change jobs, apartments and boyfriends. Mara’s fortunes improve, but Jo seems to be stagnant. Jealousy, resentment and guilt are hinted at but kept in check by the admirable performances. After a tense night of confrontation—the only tense passage in a film that’s otherwise entirely on a soft scale—the friendship gives in. Sallitt’s film is clear-eyed about the bounded nature of friendships and there’s only so much space individuals can dedicate for non-romantic relationships. It understands the way friendships wither and ossify irrevocably into a distant admiration. The understated quality of this almost Ozuvian look at non-blood ties is perhaps the reason I found the multi-tonal final sequence superfluous, ties as it does the difficult loose ends that all finished friendships invariably leave behind. Sallitt employs an unusual grammar to compose his scenes. Conversations don’t always unfold in shot-reverse shot patterns and the camera lingers long on faces, while voices emanate from off-screen. Like Bresson, Sallitt begins a shot before characters enter the field and cuts away after they’ve left. The film contains hardly any outdoor shots in its first half and opens up as it proceeds, the passage from claustrophobic NYC interiors to more open spaces paralleling the relationship between the women.

Wilcox (Denis Côté)

Denis Côté’s Wilcox begins and ends with a brief summary of individuals who moved away from civilization into the wilderness, sometimes undertaking odyssey-like journeys across vast and unforgiving landscapes: Everett Ruess, Carl McCunn, Dae Aabye, Christopher McCandless, Christopher Knight, Lilian Alling. Never mind that the lives of these figures only have a tenuous connection with each other, they nevertheless form a mythical backdrop to Côté’s film, which depicts the journey of Wilcox (Guillaume Tremblay) across the Canadian countryside. When we first see him, Wilcox is literally at the margins of a community paddling event. Lugging his large backpack, he wanders from one unnamed small town to another, taking shelter in deserted houses or buses, but never staying for more than one night anywhere. He meets and spends time with various old men living alone, but never forges friendships. He helps stuck dirt bikers, gives water to a dying mouse and survives on packaged supermarket food heated over a portable flame. The world seems welcoming and wholly accessible to him: he picks vegetables from fields, rides away on a borrowed bicycle and sleeps in the cellar of some unlocked house. There’s also a scene of an old man making potato wedges and tea.

Wilcox charts the same trajectory as Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, from the protagonist’s episodic encounters with people on his way out from civilization to his final spiritual revelation. But Côté abstracts out the McCandless story and empties it of its philosophical and emotional content. Most of the film has no real sound, which is replaced by a muffled, drone-heavy sound palette resembling a high-altitude ear block. We don’t know why Wilcox is on this quest, or why he attracts the hospitality and affection of the people he meets. The film assumes this is understood. Like in Ghost Town Anthology, Côté’s other film this year, there’s no sense of progress to the narrative, which could theoretically go on forever. As a result, Wilcox’s journey—distilled into a metanarrative of all those who leave society behind—becomes a means for the filmmaker to describe specific areas of Canadian landscape and culture. So we have generous views of the wooden strip houses so characteristic of Côté’s films, Wilcox pensively posing in and moving through springtime woods. Several passages are shot through a prism, making the periphery of the frame fuzzy. Equally mystifying is the choice to insert archival clips from the early part of last century—a surgeon trying prosthetic parts for WWI soldiers who have been disfigured and a series of shots of animals and birds forced together as though for a kiss—which are probably oblique references to the problems of modernity.

Monsters. (Marius Olteanu)

The most assured debut feature of the year, Romania’s Monsters is a three-part examination of a marriage in crisis. In the first section, Dana (Judith State), a thirty-something HR employee, skips her work trip and hires a taxi for the entire night. The taxi driver, whom she insistently picked, has had a terrible day, but he recognizes that the moody Dana suspects her husband of having an affair. In the second section, we see her husband Andrei (Cristian Popa) lying lonely and desolate in his swanky apartment, reaching out to Dana over phone. While Dana forges a fleeting emotional connection with the taxi driver, Andrei has a tryst ‘upwards’, unsatisfactorily hooking up with an upper-class businessman. The third part of the film presents them as a couple interacting with various members of their social circle. Monsters offers no easy answers: Andrei is gay, but is emotionally dependent on Dana, who can’t find intimacy outside their necessarily unsatisfactory marriage either. They playact happy coupledom for the world, but are also putting up a front to each other. Olteanu’s film forces us to constantly rework our perception of the characters, of them second-guessing each other and behaving the way they think the other would like them to behave, only to cause more misery.

Monsters models itself loosely after Godard’s Contempt, in its languid camera movement connecting people in different rooms, in its blue-red colour scheme, in its longueurs and in the centrality of jealousy in a relationship. At the backdrop of the marriage is a portrait of contemporary Romanian mores, its cultural conservatism, the nosiness of acquaintances, the hatred of the elites for their country, the pan-social anti-Roma prejudice, income inequality and housing problem. The success of the film is that these varied ideas only enrich the central story without ever overwhelming it. Olteanu demonstrates an ability to craft evocative atmosphere. Several passages unfold in real time and offscreen, the rhythm is consistently measured and the emotional beats genuine. The long scene of Andrei’s hook-up mixes the banal and the unusual to great effect. A large part of the film is in 1:1 ratio, which opens up to widescreen when the couple comes together in the third section, before closing in again. Despite being an unsubtle, theoretical choice, the device doesn’t come across as all that brash. The box produces exquisite closeups, helps Olteanu separate characters across shots and registers the cramped nature of the relationship. Monsters is a complex portrait of a marriage that can’t hold not just because of societal pressures, but because of the fundamental incompleteness of individuals.

The Treasure

The Treasure, the fiction film Corneliu Porumboiu made between two splendid documentaries, The Second Game and Infinite Football, begins with an image of paternal anxiety that would be at home in either of the latter films. Seated at the back of a car, Alin (Nicodim Toma) is upset that his father Costi (Toma Cuzin), offscreen, was late to pick him up from school. Costi replies that he wasn’t late, merely hiding, and that Robin Hood is never late. Alin doesn’t buy it, and tells Costi he isn’t Robin Hood. This offhand exchange, which has little to do with the plot of the film, functions as a kind of primal wound in the father-son relationship that Costi will attempt to mend. A little further, when he learns that Alin is being bullied by a classmate at school, Costi kneels down to teach his son how to handle it. In a tender bit of education, he instructs Alin to push the bully away and scream, but not to hit him. Later in the film, Costi chides his wife for letting Alin know he’s out looking for a treasure because it will set him up for disappointment. Among the numerous pleasures The Treasure offers is an endearing but unsentimental image of a father who judges himself through the eyes of his son.

Like all Porumboiu protagonists, Costi is a functionary. He is responsible for resolving land disputes, for authorizing private property. Costi is a straight shooter, he cannot lie. When his unemployed neighbour, Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), shows up at night asking for a large sum of money, Costi turns him down, giving a clear account of his situation. Unwilling to let go of Costi, Adrian tells him that his great grandfather had buried a treasure in their ancestral house before the communists took over, and that if Costi helped him hire a metal detector to fish it out, he’d share half of whatever they find. Skipping his bill payments, Costi arranges for the sum of money. The two set out on a Saturday to Adrian’s country home, where they’re joined by Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei), the metal detector guy. Working with two devices whose operation they can’t entirely trust, the trio scans the length of the garden and zeroes in on a spot. After a protracted quarrel with the impatient Adrian, Cornel drives away, leaving the neighbours to dig alone.

With its simple premise and single line of thought, The Treasure resembles a short story. Like Police, Adjective, the film is a procedural that emphasizes the duller, everyday facets of the treasure hunting process. Costi slips away from the office in the afternoon to go look for metal detectors. He discusses pricing and timing with a small agency, but finds Cornel at the exit willing to do it at a cheaper rate. Back at office, his boss confronts him about his afternoon absence, and Costi tells him the truth. Incredulous, the boss is convinced Costi’s having an affair. A considerable part of The Treasure finds the three men walking like zen monks in the garden, hoping that the detector reveals something. There’s a significant presence of technology in the film in the form of various electronic devices but also as numbers and charts. The men’s faith that these figures will announce good news resembles something like a superstition.

The Treasure is set against the backdrop of contemporary Bucharest—its problems of unemployment, mortgage pressures and wealth inequality—but is essentially a fairy tale. It is a fairy tale because it’s set against these harsh realities. Rendering Costi as a sympathetic man in financial distress, Porumbiou pegs the film as a rags-to-riches narrative of individual success, prompting the viewer to cheer for the man in his treasure hunt. Costi, for his part, does everything he can to spoil this: he tells pretty much everyone around him what he’s up to, the villagers around the country house turn nosy, and even the police get a whiff of it. But none of it hinders their project; true to template, they discover a treasure. Porumbiou, however, concocts an ending that pulls the rug from underneath us, turning the fairy tale’s ideology inside out. More precisely, the ending displaces the film from one fairy tale to another. We realize then that the film’s focal point was somewhere else, that the listener the story is being recited for isn’t us but Alin.

The Treasure explains this shift in historical terms. The three men are looking for a treasure buried in a land that may have been under dispute during the 1848 revolution in which, we are told, sons of landlords redistributed their elders’ property. Adrian believes the treasure itself was buried in the 20th century, before the communists’ time. It turns out it wasn’t; it was buried during the communist regime. The ancestral home was a school under the communists, became a bar after the 1989 revolution and came back to Adrian in 1998. As the men dig, they find evidence of the site being used as a brick-producing site and later a steel mill. Like Alex Gerbaulet’s Shift, The Treasure reframes the story of the present through several levels of history buried underneath. As the men excavate the history of Romania layer by layer, they discover constantly changing definitions of wealth and crime: from private property being theft to its infringement defining theft. In doing so, The Treasure imagines fairy tales as negations of the social conditions producing them. Robin Hood can flourish only in a greatly inequal society. What did communist kids dream about? Stock markets, probably.

Graduation

Dreams of escape is what Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation begins with too. Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a surgeon, imagines a better life in the West for his daughter, Eliza (Maria Drăguș), who needs to perform well in her high-school examinations if she is to get a scholarship to Cambridge. A day before the exams, she is assaulted on way to school apparently by a convict on the lam. Eliza is understandably traumatized and doesn’t perform as well as she should’ve in the first exam. Fearing this might ruin his plans for her, Romeo arranges for her next evaluation to be rigged against the wishes of his bedridden wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar). In this, he is aided by a chief inspector, a deputy mayor and an educational officer, all four trading favours with each other.

Graduation opens with a shot of someone digging outside Romeo’s apartment complex in broad daylight. It’s an image that’ll appear one more time, but one that won’t be explained. Similarly, we aren’t told who is it that’s throwing stones at Romeo’s windows. Romeo simply accepts these events and is convinced of the deep rot afflicting the world around him. A potentially damning bit of information about Eliza’s boyfriend at the scene of the assault is also left hanging, even by Eliza whom it concerns the most. Romeo is having an affair with an administrator at Eliza’s school, a fact that the long-suffering Magda knows about, but doesn’t bring up. Everybody in Graduation is ethically compromised—there’s no moral centre to the film—because that is the only way to cope with things around here.

When Magda doesn’t agree with Romeo rigging the exam results, he reminds her of their own broken aspirations. They had decided to return to Romania after the revolution, but things haven’t changed as they wished. He tells Magda that Eliza, having had a cocooned upbringing, won’t be able to handle with the sordid realities of the country and must do what they couldn’t. Romeo repeatedly asserts, spelling out the film’s anti-moral, that sometimes the results are more important that the means. In exchange for favourable exam results, Romeo prioritizes the deputy mayor, who put Romeo in touch with the education officer, for a liver transplant. It doesn’t seem like anyone is losing out by Romeo’s bypassing of the transplant waiting list, just as it seems no one is really affected if Eliza’s score is fudged. But, of course, someone is.

What Graduation continuously points out is Romeo’s willing blindness to things. He believes that Eliza wouldn’t have been assaulted had the police done their job properly, but who’s to say that the convict’s escape wasn’t one of these ‘harmless’ arrangements? He complains about corruption and stagnation, but dodges draft and thrives as a surgeon thanks to these very elements. The institutions the film revolves around—police, hospital, school, town hall—aren’t pictured as Kafkaesque labyrinths but intimate spaces made or broken by individuals in it—something like a family, which is here a tainted institution too. Romeo exploits and benefits from due process not being followed in these institutions. His downfall comes when people, for once, start doing the right things: the investigation bureau decides to examine the deputy-mayor’s dealings, the police sniffs out Romeo’s arrangement, Eliza refuses to follow his instructions and loses faith in him.

Like in an art film of the seventies, Mungiu takes considerable pleasure in charting the downfall of respectable middle-class Romania. Romeo’s sealed-off existence is hinted at from the very first scene, where it’s pierced by a stone hurled at his window. The doctor spends rest of the film trying to fix this hole, literally and symbolically. Mungiu composes several indoor shots with windows visible in the background, the opening scene having prepared us to expect them to shatter any moment. This sense of fragility and pervasive dread—peaking in a late scene in which Romeo wanders a shady neighbourhood pursuing Eliza’s assaulter, only to struggle to get away from the location—is counterbalanced by the rather affectionate portrayal of the father-daughter relationship. I was reminded of Ozu throughout Graduation, with its long shots of Romeo peeling fruits, changing shirts or just sitting in wait of his daughter’s imminent departure. The pain of generational shift is brought into focus through the figure of Romeo’s ailing mother, who doesn’t want Eliza to leave Romania. That Eliza is the one who saves her grandmother in one scene, when Romeo is at his lover’s place, reinforces the film’s implicit theme of the necessity to own up to the past.

Infinite Football

Infinite Football is centred on a middle-aged man whose name we never get to know. In the extended interview that opens the film, he talks about two accidents he had in his youth. In the first, during a football match at school, he got injured trying to protect the ball from the entire rival team that had ganged up to retrieve it at the edge of the indoor court. Ruling him out of a coveted job at the forestry department, this injury led him to take up a blue-collar job at a machine factory, where he had his second mishap. Believing that his life could have turned out different had the first incident not occurred, he decides to come up with an alternate ruleset for football that restricts players from crowding around the ball.

Trust Corneliu Porumboiu to forge out of such thin material a rich, layered exploration of the mechanics of human aspirations and the stories we tell ourselves. In many ways, Infinite Football is a companion piece to The Second Game (2014), where a shared session of football watching between father and son becomes a springboard for deeper reflection on family, art and sport aesthetics. This new film, too, bears a deceptively modest appearance: an almost a-thematic series of vignettes of the man interacting with the Porumboiu, filmed soberly with a handful of simple camera setups. But as these conversations unfold, the film spirals outwards and upwards, opening up this banal story of an individual’s private preoccupation into a universal study of human search for meaning. At the end of the film, this man’s ridiculous obsession with football’s rules becomes the most important question that could exist.

Like several characters populating Ceaușescu’s fictional works, the protagonist of Infinite Football is a small-time bureaucrat in post- Ceaușescu Romania. In the third of the film’s seven parts, we see him at forenoon in his office describing his failed attempts to emigrate to the United States. He reconciles the jarring contradiction between his unconventional, free-time pursuit and the soul-crushing banality of his day job by, obviously, drawing parallels to the double lives of superheroes, who must also shroud themselves in utter anonymity to be able to continue their crusade. The monologue is interrupted by a pair of colourful visitors – an octogenarian woman fighting for her land seized by the Communist regime accompanied by a smooth-talking chess teacher almost too good to be true – who must now face the familiar bureaucratic ineptitude. This seemingly-accidental quintessentially Porumbiou detour, in fact, becomes one with the film, because it underscores not only the contrast between the man’s mission and his everyday reality, but the similarity between his quest for coining arbitrary sporting rules and the silly government office protocol he’s supposed to uphold at work.

It’s so that this description of a personal fixation takes on a metaphysical dimension. The man continuously asserts that he wants to restrict player movement in order to increase ball movement. Why though? We can only guess. This absurd, and I daresay characteristically male, preoccupation with framing and constantly refining arbitrary rules and then pursuing excellence within these arbitrary rules, has something Sisyphean about it, a reflection perhaps of eternal truths. In a subsequent scene, appreciating a photograph from Porumboiu’s wedding, the protagonist’s aged father pontificates about the need for having life goals – work, family, wealth – without which existence becomes meaningless. The point doesn’t have to be stressed any further. It isn’t.

Like the filmmaker’s father in The Second Game, the protagonist of Infinite Football, in specific ways, is also an artist figure, and Porumboiu’s film clearly aims at such an equivalence. Seeking to single-handedly redefine the rules of the most famous sport in the world, and scribbling away diagrams to this effect almost in complete ignorance of the weight of history, the man unwittingly locates himself in the long line of genius primitive artists such as Facteur Cheval, Douanier Rousseau and Nek Chand. The process of coming up with a set of rules for a sport has a parallel with the process of art creation: a dialectical progression of proposal, contradiction and course correction. The protagonist, very consciously, treats the football field like a canvas with recognizable energy flows that could be modulated by setting the horizontal movement of players against the vertical movement of the ball. The dilemma his ever-changing set of rules for his new game – Football 2.0, Football 2.1, Football 2.9, Football Infinite – poses is the same facing an artist: when is a work of art said to be complete?

The film breathes freely, its conceptual rigour only enhanced by the relaxed quality of its organization. Porumboiu aerates the work well with long takes and charming shots of little import. At one point, we see him from behind standing at a bookshelf, thumbing through some volumes. It means nothing, but it feels at home in the film. Nor is the filmmaker afraid of sounding pretentious. The final shot of the film – a very slow track along an empty road on a wintry dawn – is overlaid with a monologue of the protagonist talking about religion: the etymology of biblical terms and their social function. This attempt at a philosophical justification of his life-project is intended to be either glorification or a critique of itself: if part of the impulse behind all art is to fashion order from the essential chaos of nature and that of religion, to furnish rituals, norms and frameworks to induce cooperation and harmony among men, couldn’t the obstinate quest to change the rules of a team sport just as well be characterized as a religious or an artistic mission? À vous de juger.

While my writing on this blog came to a grinding halt in 2014, watching and reading hit an all-time high, with the year practically spent in the eight feet between my bookshelf and computer screen. The films that I really liked last year consisted of some boldly adventurous mainstream Indian features (Haider, Dedh Ishqiya, Pisaasu, Jigarthanda), strong arthouse dramas (Waste Land, Two Days, One Night, Clouds Of Sils Maria, A Midsummer’s Fantasia), experiments in participative ethnography charting newer territories (Episode Of The Sea, Joy Of Man’s Desiring, Tomorrow Is Always Too Long), intelligent and reflexive modernist works (Actress, The Salt Of The Earth), classic fly-on-the-wall documentaries (National Gallery, Of Men And War, Maidan), purely formalist delights (Journey To The West, Panchromes I, II, III, Khan Khanne) and nearly unclassifiable mysteries without mysteries (Jauja, For The Plasma, Mercuriales). But (nearly) no film of the year, I thought, compared to the best offerings of the previous few years. Here’s hoping for a much richer 2015. As always, only the films that had their world premiere in 2014 are considered for this list. Happy New Year and good luck at the movies.

 

1. Goodbye To Language (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland)

 

Goodbye To LanguageThere is a reason why Godard’s explosive ‘second final’ film is called Adieu au langage and not Adieu à la langue: what it seeks to bid farewell to is not any particular language, but the system of language itself – not surprising for a film that attempts to wrestle with half a millennium’s worth of Western perceptual history. In 3D, which he employs like Cézanne employed watercolours, Godard finds a tool that can demolish the Albertian perspective of 2D images, decenter the human spectator and ultimately dethrone anthropocentric perception as the preeminent way of observing the world. The result is a torrent of phenomenological incidents in which stereoscopic images reinforce and undermine one another, stereophonic monologues diffuse into dialogue and ‘stereotemporal’ narrative shards respond to each other tangentially. Goodbye to Language is a investigation into the 3rd dimension in every sense of the word and sets up a plethora of sonic, visual, narrative and conceptual dialectics to see what the synthesis does to its two constituents. It is an attempt to find a perspective outside language – one of a dog, perhaps. No other film this year animated me and annoyed me as much. More importantly, it snapped me out of a cinephilia-induced intellectual stupor.

2. The Second Game (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)

 

The Second Game

The simple and cozily domestic setup of Porumboiu’s pseudo-single shot movie – the director and his father bond over a recorded game of televised football, in which the latter was a referee – belies the complex chain of implications that this physically hermetic film sets in motion. Running for exactly the length of one football match (played between two governmental bodies in 1988 on a spectacular snow covered ground), The Second Game is part-filial wish fulfillment of watching his father at work, part-review of sports aesthetics under communism and part-remembrance of an outmoded video technology, all filtered through a present day perspective. Striking an equivalence between his profession and his father’s, in both of which players have to be directed and decisions have to be made on the spot, the film is likely a reflection on whether or not the filmmaker has temperamentally inherited anything from dad, whose view of sports as perishable commodity is antithetical to his son’s view of it as art. It is more importantly one of the most intelligent and productive instances of appropriation art, with Porumboiu refashioning out of obscure sports footage a trademark film that is “long”, where “nothing happens” and which is nonetheless highly suspenseful.

3. Transformers: The Premake (Kevin Lee, USA)

 

Transformers: The PremakeIf what Porumboiu accomplishes sitting in front of a TV screen was amazing, what Chicago-based Kevin Lee does sitting in front of a computer is downright revelatory. Weaving together hundreds of internet videos about the making of Paramount Pictures’ Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), uploaded by common folk in America and Hong Kong and official news agencies in mainland China, Lee develops a brilliant and scary picture of corporate cultural hegemony in which seemingly the entire world bends over backwards to affiliate itself, consciously or otherwise, with the American conglomerate. Imbibing the spirit of Harun Farocki and Theodor Adorno (who, not coincidentally, lend their names to Lee’s HDDs) respectively in its tracing of modern forms of labour and commodity production and its critique of the darker side of popular entertainment, Premake reveals a post-globalized, post-nationalist Hollywood whose financial motor is now set to ensure China-friendly films to capitalize a booming market – a pertinent reminder that the influence of patronage on aesthetics is strongest in cinema of all arts. It is a short, sharp alarm call about the all-pervasive nature of Big Money, which can forge adherents out of the very people it has run over.

4. Bronx Obama (Ryan Murdock, USA)

 

Bronx ObamaRyan Murdock’s bountiful Kickstarter-funded documentary about Bronx-based Puerto Rican single father and Obama-impersonator Louis Ortiz is an oblique tale of possession and haunting. For the recession-hit Ortiz, Obama’s ascension to power is not only a story of national hope, but also a personal one that rides the coattails of Project Merchandise Obama. Murdock’s richly thematic film ties his fate to that of the POTUS in heady ways that demonstrate the double-edged nature of power: while his daughter can’t take for granted the privileges that the president’s can, Ortiz, unlike Obama, has infinitely more power in being able to stop playing the president any time he wants. It is also a snapshot of a common man struggling to maintain his dignity and identity under the weight of celebrity, for Ortiz has to not only become a receptacle of repressed racial hatred towards the president, but actively undercut his beliefs and parody his idol for one-percenter entertainment. When Ortiz looks at his hero speaking on television, he is at the same time looking at a mirror, continuously calibrating his speech, gesture and gait to match those of his doppelgänger. A Kagemusha for the 21st century.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA)

 

The Grand Budapest HotelIt seems to me that, with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson set himself his biggest challenge to date. If making films with genuine affect wasn’t tough enough in a postmodern art climate where unironic approach to material is generally considered reactionary, his new movie assigns him the task of conveying nostalgia for a world doubly lost to our post-ideological age, in which the only valid nostalgia is the nostalgia for a time when nostalgia was even possible. The Matrioshka doll-like construction of the film aptly serves this objective by employing nested frameworks, each set in crucial periods of 20th century Western history, that bring this lost world closer to us instead of distancing it. The result is a deeply felt work about the enduring value of categories such as truth, beauty and basic human decency, really, which sets Anderson apart from most of his equally flamboyant peers, whose malevolent or agnostic universes seem to reject the spiritually uplifting side of art. If ever Renoir’s faith in Human Goodness in The Grand Illusion (1937) felt as being trapped in a time capsule beyond contemporary access, Anderson’s film releases it back into our epoch.

6. Letters To Max (Eric Baudelaire, France)

 

Letters To MaxDear Max, Are you there?” asks Baudelaire in the first of his 74 “impossible letters” to his Abkhazian friend and ex-diplomat, Maxim Gvindjia, addressing, in effect, both his interlocutor and his country. This existential question haunts the entirety of the film, which investigates what it is that really makes a nation. Is it the spectacular rituals and glorious anthems reinforcing nationhood? The time-worn buildings and landscape that give it a unity of character? The dubious accreditation of superpowers? Or is it indeed an imagined community forming an identity in opposition to ‘the other’? Such a dialogue between the material and the abstract is woven right into the structure of Letters to Max, where the very possibility of the physical letters that Baudelaire dispatches from France reaching Abkhazia gestures towards a recognition of its existence. Baudelaire’s film is partly an amicable correspondence between amis sans frontières and partly an interview between a bureaucrat and a political critic in which Eric’s broaching uncomfortable questions thwart Max’s desire to paint a unblemished picture of Abkhazia, putting him in a double bind paralleling that of his country: a nation torn apart as much historically between change and preservation as it is geographically.

7. False Harmonies (Paul Vecchiali, France)

 

False HarmoniesVeteran French filmmaker Paul Vecchiali made not one but two sublime films in 2014, the other being the Dostoyevsky adaptation, White Nights on the Pier. In False Harmonies, Vecchiali plays a man who is grieving the death of his long time partner. He chances upon email exchanges that the latter had had with an anonymous user on an online gay dating website and imagines the texts being read out to him by this unknown young man, who is played by two different actors depending on the tone and content of the messages. On one level, False Harmonies is an intelligent modernist exercise that charts its own making, wherein the script of the film is its very subject and the elaborate central scene of letter-reading is, in effect, the audition for the actors playing that role. But, like White Nights, it is also a work of soaring honesty about the essentially limited nature of romantic relationships. It suggests the frightful probability that the person you have spent half your life with might be the one you know the least; that we play roles in a relationship, sure, but we also seek out other roles to complement it; that getting out of character might be as important as getting in.

8. Li’l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France)

 

Li'l QuinquinIn its conception, Bruno Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin, made as a four-part television miniseries, recalls the slyly subversive films of Robert Altman in his heyday. Picture this: 1.4 million French folks tune in to Arte TV expecting a comic broth of northern hicks, bumbling detectives and enfants terribles. What they get instead is a progressively morbid feuilleton about an ersatz Old Testament God meting out gory punishment for vaguely defined transgressions and a community with a twisted idea of moral propriety willing to shield this vigilante who seems to give potent form to their own thwarted drives. This is fine, topical screenwriting that responds to the rapid rise of the far-right in France, portraying a nation whose barely-repressed xenophobic streak during and before WW2 rears its ugly head in the present as Islamophobia. (Quinquin seems so tailor-made for India, where similar political upheavals have taken place and where a psychopath with a perverted sense of bovine justice is very much in the realm of possibilities,) It’s a world where pre-adolescents inherit, internalize and put into practice adult beliefs and rituals without reflection. Despite its humour and frivolity, darkness looms in the future that Dumont’s film lurches into.

9. The Lesson (Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov, Bulgaria)

 

The LessonThe debut feature by Grozeva and Valchanov, like Two Days, One Night, works within the melodramatic form, moving its protagonist from point A to B through a series of progressively challenging obstacles. But while I found the Dardennes’ formidable and formally astute picture nonetheless a tad too ‘clean’, in the way it deliberately takes an irresolvable ethical quandary as a starting point and keeps underscoring a globalized Europe, The Lesson seems to me to retain the messiness of some of their earlier great films. On one level, it is a simple parable about the fallibility of authority, but it is also an uncompromising portrait of the tyrannical nature of all forms of social organizations, be they human systems with conscientious individuals at the helm or faceless bureaucratic ones with no vested interests. Slowly shifting its narrative space from the classroom to the metropolis with an enviable economy of exposition, The Lesson facilitates a double-edged critique that argues that the values taught in the class are but modeled on the values the state imposes on us and that what the state demands of us is to be ideal pupils in a classroom that is less than ideal.

10. Melbourne (Nima Javidi, Iran)

 

MelbourneThis remarkable debut feature by Nima Javidi naturally reminds one of Asghar Farhadi’s films, with its strong sense of drama, tremendous actor interpretations and mature writing that does not compromise the integrity of any of the characters. But there is also something particularly “new generational” about it in the way it harnesses the choice in front of affluent young Tehranians: to stay in Iran and own up its problems or to leave the country to start life anew. The inciting event in the film that dramatizes this choice stops the train of life dead in its tracks, exposing its protagonists to the unbearable “nowness” of the present. It is a terribly universal predicament in which time freezes around the material reality before you and all plans for the future and memories of the past seem like a remote, inaccessible country, a crisis that makes you want to either regress in time (“wish mother were here”) or to jump to a future day when the clouds have cleared, a moment where husband and wife see each other’s innermost character in all its stark nakedness. Though the couple might physically arrive at the eponymous neverland, the utopia it once represented is irrevocably lost.

 

Special mention: National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, USA)

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu

Rest Is Silence 
(Image Courtesy: Mandragora Sales)

Nicolae Ceausescu lived in denial. In the first scene of Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010), which is almost the last scene of his life, Ceausescu, in the makeshift TV trial that the revolutionaries have organized, denies that he had anything to do with the atrocities of the previous day. Given sufficient time, he might have denied that he had anything to do with Romania’s dilapidating condition at all. The prosecutors did not give him that privilege. Ujica does. Apparently the result of research on hundreds of hours of historical footage, Autobiography assembles three hours of newsreels that Ceausescu had, indirectly, made for himself, carefully putting together a nationwide mise en scène and a troupe as large as Romania’s population. Ujica’s is a film that resides on the edges of the frame, one that works only on hindsight, with knowledge of what really transpired. We mostly see Ceausescu waving hands and applauding amidst the countless Fordist parades in which people are reduced to flag-waving anonymities. He’s not particularly unlikable. In fact, he seems quite amicable. One could mistake him for a token detective from an American noir or a French film director of the 60s. Contradictory alliances are formed (Both Nixon and Mao seem to have had good relationship with Romania). In fact, Ceausescu seems to have been friends with every major leader. But Ceausescu’s downfall, in which the last hour of the film is interested in, is also, for better or worse, saddening. His words and gestures become more rhetorical than passionate Like Carlos, here is a man who is stuck in a time capsule adhering to his beliefs and illusions when the world has moved beyond him. Nicolae Ceausescu lived in denial.

The first thing that strikes us when watching Autobiography is that it does not insert alternate footage to counterpoint those that we see. (The only external contrasting force comes from our current knowledge of Romania during that period). Neither does Ujica employ shot footage nor does he use other Romanian films of the period to fill in the gaps. (This may be because, as it was the case in Stalinist Russia, the alternates to propaganda cinema were probably only apolitical melodramas or socialist realism). Unlike filmmakers such as Anand Patwardhan and Alanis Obomsawin, Ujica seems to place trust on the propaganda clips themselves to illustrate the interstices between them. He uses clips that Ceausescu himself would have used had he written a film autobiography. For instance, the famed footage of Ceausescu’s final speech and his consequent bewilderment and that of him and Elena fleeing in a helicopter are cleverly omitted. The film cuts from Ceausescu’s trial to the past as if going into a flashback. This shift could either imply Ceausescu trying to vindicate himself using the autobiography that is to follow or Ujica/the prosecutors trying to incriminate him using the same evidence. The film is both an encomium and a critique. It’s Rashomon situation on a national scale. Taking a deconstructive approach wherein he lets the contradictions in the footage surface by themselves and using custom soundtrack to multiply the pomp or, less often, provide irony, Ujica elucidates how the Ceausescu regime was marked by suppression of histories and silencing of oppositions.

After I watched Ujica’s picture, I wondered how it would have turned out if Ceausescu had indeed made his autobiography using the footage he had amassed. Of course, Ceausescu didn’t make such a film but, I guess any such self-serving propaganda made under a dictatorial regime should share traits alluded to by Ujica’s film. I couldn’t get my hands on any such Romanian film, but I did see a North Korean propaganda film made for (by?) Ceausescu’s friend and contemporary, Kim Il Sung, modestly titled President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975 (1976) which recites by rote the various meetings that the premier held during the aforementioned period. In fact, the title becomes amazingly self-parodying once you see the movie, whose script consists of the following line, with minor variations, repeated a hundred times: “On [Insert Date], President Kim Il Sung met [Insert Name], the [Insert designation] of [Insert name of communist country], in a brotherly environment to express his support for [the people’s struggle against imperialism/strengthening bilateral relationship]. [Name] praised General Kim Il Sung for [his noble virtue and leadership/his immense contributions to anti-imperialist struggle worldwide/his exploits in progressing mankind]”.

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu

The film is never blatant as Ujica’s pseudo-autobiography might suggest, with even remotely problematic areas being cleanly pruned out, (The closest the film (unintentionally) gets to the truth is when the narrator points out that Kim Il Sung “brought about a spectacular reality in Korea”). However, one can still trace, with considerable effort, the counterpoints are seething underneath the rosy audiovisuals. Thousands of dressed-up people gathered for pomp, hundreds “being rounded up” to welcome the premier and the omnipresent absence of the individual are all dehumanizing in a way. The president praises his Japanese counterparts to no end while he talks elsewhere about Korea and China’s joint efforts to ward of Japanese imperialism during the war. In the meeting footages, Kim Il Sung is generally the centre of attraction in the frame – a fact understandable given his imposing physique. His counterparts are regularly pushed to the edges and appear nimble in relation to the composed stature of Il Sung. The president is always cheerful, applauding, waving, at ease and possesses a singular command of his space. One could mistake him for a veteran stage actor. The message here is clear: The world looks up to Kim Il Sung and the way he rules your country. This is the best you’ll get. Looking at the two films, it is clear how Ceausescu was influenced by the North Korean cinema (probably more than its policies), which, in turn, has echoes of Riefenstahl. They seem to have been directors more than dictators.

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

President Kim Il Sung Met Foreign Heads of State and Prominent Figures April 1970-December 1975

Ujica’s film is called The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, but it also holds well as a biography of Romania because not only does it cover a huge ground in terms of historical time, it also seems to allude to attitudes that would define Romanian culture even after his deposition. The figure of Nicolae Ceausescu seems to loom large over contemporary Romanian cinema. Almost all the “New Wave” films from the country have had Ceausescu or his regime at their focal point. Films such as Tales from the Golden Age (2009), which no doubt treat history as a closed project, confront the past directly and provide a neat picture of what it is to live in a communist-dictatorial state (The “hat” and “pig” segments are simultaneously moving and hysterical) while even a work that is so hermetic and microcosmic on the surface like Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas (2010), set during the 20th anniversary of Ceausescu’s execution, is haunted by the events of the past. Underneath, Muntean’s film seems to triangulate between a disillusionment with the present (post-globalization Romania), a nostalgia for the past (possibly the socialist age) and the dread produced by the knowledge that nostalgia, more often than not, is the longing for a past that never was. Both features of Corneliu Porumboiu deal with residual theatricality that marks contemporary Romania. In the first film, the revolution against theatricality itself makes way for theatrical claims to glory and pride while, in the second, the capital attempts to project itself as a city that is more significant than it actually is. In fact, this seemingly quintessentially Romanian affinity for theatricality is part of the curriculum in Ujica’s debut feature, Videograms of a Revolution (1992), which he co-directed with Harun Farocki.

Videograms, possibly Ujica’s finest film and clearly a masterwork, presents us shards from the Romanian revolution in the form of small “video packets” that were shot at various locations in Bucharest during the days just preceding Ceausescu’s death. We get to see history as it is happening, in all its tragicomic elements, with multiple parallel governments being set up, phantom enemies generated, impromptu civil wars brewing and the relentless efforts undertaken by either side to restore peace. Unlike any other period in history, possibly with the exception of the clashes in Chile two decades ago that were “immortalized” by Patricio Guzman in his fly-on-the-wall documentaries, we witness how technological progress has enabled us to document history with utmost fluidity and urgency. There is no need for an Eisenstein anymore to recreate the revolution and overwrite the actual event. This relationship between technological progress, the subsequent changes in modes of production and the possibility of social progress is of central interest to Videograms. It tries to find an answer to whether revolution is primarily the seizure of the forces of production from authority or if there are certain fundamental, subtler issues to be tackled.

Interestingly enough, the first thing that the protestors do after storming the party headquarters is to attack the television station. As the revolutionary forces take over the broadcast, we see not only their efforts to disperse the message to the public but also the theatricality that eventually overwhelms their exploits. Appropriation of the television station is taken for the appropriation of political power. Prisoners (generally party members close to the dictator) are presented on TV, subjected to mockery-of-justice type vengeance trials and sentenced by impromptu courts and law makers, The abuse of (TV) power that was to be corrected persists, only under a different political scenario and for a different end. We see this abuse of power off screen as well, where the acrimony towards Ceausescu is misguided towards prisoners. Videograms, however, remains highly ambivalent about the role of television and cinema in the phenomenon. Its view is more rounded and holistic than the critical or exalting stances one might expect. The camera, in Videograms, is as much imprisoning as it’s liberating.

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Videograms of a Revolution

Routinely, at the end of each of the separately titled segment, the narrator of the film startlingly steps back from the immediacy of the upheaval, to perform a formal analysis of the images we see in order to illustrate that the film is more about the revolution as it was perceived than as it happened. Throughout, it probes how the televising of a real event can guarantee its occurrence and authenticate a fictional event. We see European reporters filming the broadcast of Ceausescu’s trial (in place of the trial itself) as if television itself is a transparent window into reality. (This recalls Paul Patton’s account of how CNN reporters in the Gulf during the war were watching CNN in order to find out what was happening). Like great works such as Godard’s History of Cinema (1998) and Marker’s The Last Bolshevik (1993), but far less elegiac and more optimistic, Farocki and Ujica examine film, history and everything in between in Videograms. They note:

“Camera and event. Since its invention, film has seemed destined to make history visible. It has been able to portray the past and stage the present. We have seen Napoleon on horseback and Lenin on the train. Film was possible because there was history. Almost imperceptibly, like moving on a Möbius strip, the side was flipped. We look on and have to think: if film is possible, then history, too, is possible.”

Perhaps this is the biggest irony that marks Ceausescu’s life. The tool that helped him hold power for decades became the very tool that accelerated his downfall. The pageants that highlighted his reign would give way to his own trial on the national television. And all the clapping at the end of those grand ceremonies would only end up in the cheerful applause throughout Bucharest when his death is broadcasted on television. After images of the corpses of the Ceausescus are flashed on television for the confirmation of the event, one reporter yells as the screen fades to black: “That’s it then, turn it off”.

Ujica’s previous film, Out of the Present (1995), also involves a man cut off from the world, literally. Evocative, slightly frightening and borderline-experimental, Out of the Present chronicles Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev’s 10-month stay at the Mir station during which time his country collapses. Ujica intercuts between the tumults in Moscow and scenes of Krikalev’s floating about in free space to sketch the portrait of a world in transition. He’s a man who, in the process of leaping into the future, loses grip on the present. For Krikalev, like the citizens of Bucharest in the previous film, reality is what the media tells him it is. In addition to his physical severance, he is, like so many of his counterparts on earth, a man alienated from history through the very images that present history. But Krikalev’s case is even more heartbreaking given that fact that he is the only person from his country to have not witnessed this historical juncture and that he’ll be returning to a country totally different from the one he lived in. This idea of media as the appraiser of history and the diaristic construction of Out of the Present presage the autobiographical structure of Ujica’s latest.

Coming back to The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, which attempts to sum up the entirety of Ceausescu’s regime as a large-scale theater with Romania as the stage, the Romanians as the performers and the Ceausescus as the stars. Ujica’s film suggests that in Ceausescu’s rule, cinema was treated like politics and politics, like cinema, that he was amassing wealth to no end while the whole country was in dire straits and that all was illusion. Although there might be some truth value to it, It seems to me that such a sketch is rather dangerous and complacent since it runs the risk of reducing a ruthless dictator to a charlatan who knew how to make the right moves. Ujica deals with Ceausescu more or less like how Assayas deals with Carlos. Both these political figures have been drained of their potency by their writer-directors and turned into interesting characters with simple psychology and behavioral pattern. There is little reason to believe that all the pomp and self-aggrandizement would have vanished had Ceausescu been a democratic ruler. The cult of the leader is largely independent of such scenarios. Given that Ujica intended to make a film critical of Ceausescu that would have resulted even if the latter had made it himself, it is understandable that he was obliged to leave out certain implicating footage. But this self-imposed restriction becomes a damaging limitation in Autobiography. Ujica’s message is clear even minutes into the film. In trying to develop a pseudo-laudatory autobiography and a stinging critique out of the same material, Ujica, I’m afraid, only dilutes the latter.

Compare this with the density that the remarkable BBC documentary The King of Communism: The Pomp & Pageantry of Nicolae Ceausescu (2002) achieves despite its flaws and its reduced running time. Like Ujica, writer-director Ben Lewis believes that Ceausescu’s regime was fuelled by such grand scale performances. But instead of relying on these very performances to elucidate the flipside, Lewis keeps interjecting anti-narratives of every sort that keep countering reductive narratives such as Ujica’s and Assayas’. One of those interviewed is a TV reporter who was filming Ceausescu during his infamous final speech. When asked why he did not telecast the agitation in front of the palace instead of the unrest at Ceausescu’s balcony, he tells us that it would have been against the ethics of his profession. It is not that he is deluded or against democracy. It is just that such an act would never have been unethical considering his situation. Lewis’ film is rife with such deadlocks that tend to disrupt totalizing narratives such as the one The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu presents. For instance, it probes why ever did the Romanian public cooperate in this mythmaking. After all, it was this nationalistic propaganda that enabled Ceausescu to resist the imperialism of the superpowers and to build a stable nation. Some of the interviewees still assert that Ceausescu represented their country with dignity at the world stage, although it was precisely this misplaced sense of self-respect that turned against both Ceausescu and Romania.

Through interviews with people who had really taken part and performed in these pageants, Lewis arrives at the conclusion that it was all propaganda by the public and for the public, and not a one man show as purported by Ujica’s film. We come to know that people actually looked forward to these shows that helped them regain their trust towards the nation. They’re even nostalgic about it. Lewis points out that the performer-audience relationship was reversed at the end of each show and illustrates how it was of double advantage for Ceausescu. For him, it was both an august propaganda and an effective distraction. For the public, it was both escape and replenishment. Through these accounts, we gradually get the idea that Romania was not being cheated some clever, omnipotent trickster, but that it was in a hyperreal situation where the truth of the matter was overridden by ‘appearances’ that didn’t appear so. One perceptive lady tells us that it might have been better if the Soviet had indeed occupied Romania instead of Ceausescu holding ground. At least then, she points out, the Romanians would have had a visible enemy to fight against. Ujica’s film rejects such nuances, instead replacing them with a blanket rejection of Ceausescu’s regime as totalitarian and deceiving. What it does (and admirably so), however, is to question the way we approach historical material (and, consequently, contemporary material). It urges us to look closer, to keep our eyes open for obscured faces and our ears open for silenced voices.

 

Rating:
 

[The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010) Trailer]

2009 has been one gold mine of a year for world cinema with so many great directors across the globe attempting, one last time, to register their name in the decades’ best list. Even if most of these films turn out to be minor works of major filmmakers, the sheer richness and variety it has brought within a small time span is remarkable. Here is the list of my favorite films of 2009 (in order of preference, with a tie at No. 10). Please note that the movies considered for this list were only the ones which had a world premiere in 2009. That means noteworthy films (some of which could have well made their way into this list) such as Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum (2008), Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) and Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo (2008) were not counted. Unfortunately, I have not seen films from some big names including Rivette’s Around A Small Mountain, Resnais’ Wild Grass, Campion’s Bright Star, Herzog’s My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Farocki’s In Comparison, Noé’s Enter the Void, Denis’ White Material, Costa’s Ne Change Rien, Mendoza’s Lola and Kinatay, Reitman’s Up in the Air, Eastwood’s Invictus, Kashyap’s Gulaal, Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coens’ A Serious Man. So, sadly, they would have to vie for this list later. And needless to say, the following list will most definitely shuffle and change with time.

1. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA)


I don’t know whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, but in any case it’s a masterpiece”, says one of the characters, self-referentially, in Godard’s A Woman is a Woman (1961). I’m tempted to say the same thing about Tarantino’s deceptively irreverent, endlessly enthralling and relentlessly inventive piece of bravura filmmaking. At once paying tribute to exploitative war movies and incriminating them, Tarantino’s swashbuckling “WW2-film film” is a war movie that ends all war movies. Absorbing as much from Truffaut as it does from Godard, Tarantino’s film is as potent and as personal as the “genre explosions” of the French directors. Essentially a mere medium of conversation between cinephiles on either sides of the film, Inglourious Basterds is the movie that seals the American auteur’s status as a contemporary giant of cinema and one that has the power to make its mark, deservedly, in our collective cultural vocabulary. With Inglourious Basterds, to steal from Michael Powell, Tarantino becomes the ventriloquist and his doll, the singer and the song, the painter and his palette, the pupil and the master.

2. The Maid (Sebastián Silva, Chile/Mexico)


A sister film, in some ways, to Jonathan Demme’s brilliant Rachel Getting Married (2008), Sebastián Silva’s The Maid is nothing short of a spiritual revelation at the movies. What could have been an one-note leftist tirade about Chile’s class system is instead elevated into the realm of human where one facial twitch, one stretch of silence and one impulsive word can speak much more than any expository monologue or contrived subplot. There is no simplification of human behaviour here, no easily classifiable moral categories and no overarching statement to which truth is sacrificed. Nor does Silva suspend his study of the classes to observe his characters. He merely lets the obvious stay in the background. And just when you think that Silva’s vision of the world is getting all too romantic, he delivers a fatal blow to shatter your smugness – a single, deceptively simple shot during the final birthday party that masterfully sums up everything from the irreconcilable, repressed tension that exists between classes in capitalistic societies to our adaptability as humans to live peacefully with each other despite socio-economic disparities.

3. Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France/Spain)


Rigorous but oh-so-tender, centenarian Manoel de Oliveira’s one-hour wonder Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl is a film in one and a half acts. Oliveira translates the work of Eça de Queiroz to the screen, running the 19th century tale of romance through the current economic landscape and harnessing the resultant anachronism to paint an achingly beautiful picture about the inability to transcend class, escape reality and lose oneself in art. Despite its decidedly Brechtian and ceaselessly self reflexive nature, Oliveira’s film is rife with moments of poignancy and touches of humour. Using double, triple and quadruple framing and achieving a mise-en-abyme of art and reality, Oliveira writes a ruminative essay on the impossibility of art and reality to merge, the confusion that exists between them and the classism that exists within and with respect to art. Flooded with references to art and art forms, Eccentricities is such a dense and intricate fabric of the arts that even the past is treated in a detached manner like a piece of art, where each image looks like a painting, each sound feels like a melody and each movement cries out: “cinema!”.

4. The Milk of Sorrow (Claudia Llosa, Peru/Spain)


Of all the recent movies that have attempted to acknowledge dark chapters in national histories and advocated looking forward to the future instead of crying over what is lost, perhaps, none is as sober, ethical and uncompromising as Claudia Llosa’s Golden Bear winner. Llosa inherits her tale from the terrorist atrocities that plagued Peru two decades ago (Inheritance being the prime motif of the film) but, subsequently, discards every possible opportunity for sensationalism or propaganda. Tightly framing the lead character, Fausta (Magaly Solier), within and against claustrophobic structures, doorways, photographs, windows, paintings, mirrors and walls, gradually varying the depth of focus along the movie to detach the protagonist and integrate her with her surroundings and using extremely long shots to dwarf her in vast opens spaces of the tranquil town, Llosa concocts a film of utmost narrative austerity and aesthetic rigor. Punctuating and contrasting these downbeat images of Fausta’s life are slice-of-life sequences from the town depicting various wedding rituals and parties which tenderly highlight Peruvian people’s open-hearted embracing of capitalism and their resolve to come out of the trauma of the past and move on with life.

5. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, USA/Japan/Spain)


If Inglourious Basterds was a coup from within the system, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is an out-and-out war against the machine. The essential piece of cinema of resistance, The Limits of Control eschews simple genre classification and flips every ingredient of Hollywood’s conveyor belt products to surprise, appall, irritate and provoke us with each one of its moves. The complete absence of Jarmuschian brand of deadpan humour announces the film’s seriousness of intent. It is as if Jarmusch wants to establish once and for all that Hollywood does not equal American cinema and that the cinema that the former school marginalizes is truly alive and kicking. The Limits of Control is a film that can easily get on your nerves but, eventually, it succeeds in getting under your skin and evolving gradually to reveal how meticulously crafted it is. Using Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, production designer Eugenio Caballero and editor Jay Rabinowitz masterfully, Jarmusch creates a movie so meditative and relaxing that one feels exactly how William Blake (Johnny Depp) would have at the end of Dead Man (1995).

6. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)


Porumboiu’s follow-up to one of the most hilarious comedies of the decade, 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), is a companion of sorts to Jarmusch’s film not only in the sense that both of them negate the function of the genre they are supposed to belong to, by completely de-dramatizing their narratives, but also because Porumboiu’s film, too, is a conflict between two types of cinema – the cinema of analytical contemplation represented by the detective-protagonist of the film (Dragos Bucur) and the cinema of thoughtless action represented by his ready-for-ambush boss (Vlad Ivanov). However, more concretely, Police, Adjective is an examination of how our own political and social systems, partly due to the rigidity of our written languages, end up dominating us and how individual conscience and social anomalies are effaced clinically in order to have the bureaucratic clockwork running smoothly. Like Bucharest, Porumboiu, often self-reflexively, sketches the portrait of a bland and pacific city that tries to ape the far west and project itself as more dynamic than it actually is. The film’s disparate themes crystallize deliciously in the final, side-splitting, Tarantino-esque set piece where we witness the police chief urging his subordinates to act by the book, literally.

7. Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola, Italy/Argentina/USA/Spain)


Tetro is a beautiful film. Not just in the way it looks, but in the sheer romance it has for a lost world. The only worthy B&W film of this year out of the four I saw (the other three being Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Villeneuve’s Polytechnique and Lu’s City of Life and Death, the last one being my candidate for the worst film of the year), Tetro is a wonderful expressionistic melodrama in the vein of Powell and Pressburger – figures whose films form the thematic and narrative focal point of this movie. Like many of the films mentioned in this list, but with more optimism, Coppola investigates the possibility of revival of the past and revelation of the obscured using art – movies, theatre and literature, in this case – employing a number of experiments with the film’s aspect ratio, colour and sound. Coppola also comments upon, nostalgically, the filmic medium’s ability to influence people to see cinema as a reflection of personal histories. But most importantly, Tetro is Coppola’s ritual of killing his patron-turned-authoritarian father (like his mentor Bertolucci did in The Conformist (1970)) – Hollywood – as his decisive farewell to industrial cinema and an autobiographical allegory about the obliteration of artistic vision by the alluring yet dangerous, powerful yet ephemeral flash of light called fame.

8. Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, Italy/France)


Writer-director Marco Bellocchio’s ballad, based on a nebulous part of fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s life, can teach those so-called historical dramas a thing or two about locating personal ideologies within collective history without being exploitative or pandering to pop demands. Bellocchio’s film is far from a detailed recreation of Mussolini’s political life. It is, in fact, a commentary upon such “detailed recreations” of history based on documents written by winners. Bellocchio’s formidable script and mise en scène keep probing and remarking upon the tendency of fascist systems to suppress histories – personal and national – and exploit popular media, especially the relatively young and emotionally powerful cinema, to blind people of truth and forge a faux reality – a theme underscored in Tarantino’s film too. What more? Bellocchio constructs the film exactly like one of those Soviet agitprop films – not by easy spoofing, but by retaining their spirit and rhythm – using rapid montage, expressionistic performances and operatic sounds. Be it common folk fighting in a cinema hall over a news reel or a bereaved mother breaking down during the screening of The Kid (1921), cinema registers its omnipresence and omnipotence in Bellocchio’s film.

9. Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia)


The perfect antidote to the summer blockbuster, Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah is an extremely assured and undeniably moving piece of cinema that arrives, appositely, as the golden jubilee reboot to Herzog’s thematically kindred movie, Where the Green Ants Dream (1984). Cleverly relegating specific issues such as the Australian government’s intervention and relocation policies for the Aborigines to the background, Thornton frees his films of broad, propagandist political agendas, without ever making the film lack social exploration. With an extraordinary sound design, Thornton keeps the word count in the film to an absolute minimum, letting the stretches of silence shared by his lead characters speak for themselves. The film’s observations about banality of racism in contemporary Australia, exploitation of tribal art and its consequences, the effect of colonialism, especially due to Christian missionaries, on the Aboriginal culture and the ever growing chasm between the tribal and white life styles themselves are fittingly subordinated to the beautiful, unspoken love story that, essentially, forms the heart of the film.

10. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France/Italy)


Let me dare to say this: Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is either the most profound or the most pretentious movie of the year. For now, I choose the former. Audiard’s decidedly unflinching feature breaks free from the limitations of a generic prison drama and takes on multiple dimensions as the apolitical and irreligious protagonist of the film, Malik (played by Tahar Rahim), finds himself irreversibly entangled in ethnic gang wars within and outside the prison. A trenchant examination of religion as both a tool of oppression and a vehicle for political escalation, A Prophet is an audacious exploration of Muslim identity in the western world post-9/11. Although the plot developments may leave the viewer dizzy, it is easy to acknowledge how Audiard confronts the issues instead of working his way around it or making cheeky and superficial political statements. Strikingly juxtaposing and counterpointing Sufism and Darwinism in Malik’s search for identity, Audiard creates an immensely confident and nonjudgmental film that trusts its audience to work with the rich ambiguity it offers.

(Images Courtesy: IMDb, The Auteurs, Screen Daily)

[EDIT: 7 Jan: Since it seems like The Beaches of Agnes had its premiere in 2008, I’m removing it from this list. That leaves exactly 10 movies on the list]