The first half of Happy as Lazzaro, like Alice Rohrwacher’s previous work The Wonders, offers itself as a portrait of a community. The film opens at night time in the imaginary village of Inviolata. A group of men are serenading a young lady, but we see the scene from the point of view of the women in the balcony. There are about half a dozen of them of varying ages in the room—The Wonders prepares us to assume they are blood sisters. As the young man is asked into the house, we realize that this social ritual is a rite of passage for men and women alike. The women of the house offer drinks and snacks to the male visitors, sealing the relationship. Lit by a sole incandescent bulb, the scene is filmed like a home video and is chock-a-block with incident: grandma carried to her designated seat, a wine glass passed from hand to hand, a sleeping baby, an unexpected visit by a chicken. The specificity of these details makes it clear that they derive from Rohrwacher’s own memory, as is also evident a while later when a character from the city gives children candy after a tap on their forehead.

Inviolata, as the name suggests, is a commune untouched by time, geographically cut off as it was from the rest of the country following a flood in the seventies. There’s hardly any electricity, only a handful of light bulbs, no media and no technology save for one transport vehicle. The fifty-odd people of the village aren’t divided into families; they form a single social unit. They share accommodation and marry within themselves. Lording over them is the family of the marquise de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), a tobacco baron who keeps Inviolata in the dark about the progress outside the commune. The villagers work as sharecroppers—a practice outlawed in Italy in the seventies—indebted to the marquise, who believes that exploitation is the way of the world. It’s not just the physical isolation of Inviolata sequestering the villagers; their fear and lack of curiosity turns them into sheep fenced in by legends and superstitions. Rohrwacher interweaves the oppression of the villagers with the barren landscape they inhabit, the juxtaposition producing metaphysical connotations about slavery.

One of the sheep in Inviolata’s womb is Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a cherub-faced, slack-armed, wide-eyed emblem of Doomed Innocence who is, in turn, exploited by the exploited villagers. Lazzaro is given the short shrift right from the first scene, where he’s the only one to get no drink and is sent out to guard the sheep while others celebrate. He is the village donkey, burdened with all chores, petty and heavy, of the villagers. Bullied by even babies, Lazzaro is at the very end of the oppression chain, abused by both the villagers and the young marquis, who manipulates him into a brotherly relationship as part of a kidnap ploy to extract money from his mother. Despite the string of disappointments that he faces, Lazzaro doesn’t show any emotion. He is, in fact, not human, floats as he does as a pure symbol amidst the physical reality of the film. At the midpoint, state authorities finally discover Inviolata and bring the villagers back to contemporary civilization. Lazzaro, as usual, is left out and remains in the deserted village for twenty years.

Part of the reason Happy as Lazzaro sustains interest is this intrusion of the fantastical into the realist tapestry of the film. In its first half, Rohrwacher’s film depicts the hardships of country life at what appears to be the turn of the nineteenth century in the vein of Olmi or Bertolucci. To be sure, there are anachronistic elements like the motor vehicles, but there’s no sense initially that the film is working against reality. We see the villagers at work, harvesting tobacco, tilling the fields and threshing hay. Their strongly Mediterranean faces, combined with the dazzling colour and light quality of 16mm film, recalls Pasolini, adding to the film’s lived-in aspect. But the magic-realist elements at the periphery—the rain of hay, Lazzaro’s catatonic spells—soon come to the fore, taking over the film once the villagers are rehabilitated. In the second half, when Antonia (a splendid Alba Rohrwacher) discovers that Lazzaro hasn’t aged a day unlike herself and the other villagers, she kneels in prayer to Lazzaro. Rohrwacher recognizes the comedy, but doesn’t undermine the piety the scene evokes. In a lovely shot coupling the profane and the sacred, she films Antonia and Lazzaro through a sheet in the back of a truck, making their profiles seem straight out of a religious painting.

Religion, as the opiate of the oppressed, is also at the crosshair of the film’s criticism: the hypocritical marquise gives Sunday classes to the folks of Inviolata, who are elated at the sight of a religious sticker. Rohrwacher’s sights, though, are on contemporary politics as well. Detailing the feudal relationship between the marquise and the villagers—and the villagers and Lazzaro—allows her to transpose these relations onto comparable power equations under capitalism. The first thing Lazzaro notices when he enters the city is a scene of immigrant workers bidding to get a fruit-picking contract. Lazzaro is the ideal worker: he doesn’t eat, sleep, shit or feel pain. Most importantly, he doesn’t question things. He is consequently at the bottom of the pyramid in either system. Despite the necessary progress it brings, modernity produces its own form of violence that one can’t put a face to. Happy as Lazzaro is a mannered but polyvalent work, with plenty of interesting details that can’t be reduced to a single idea. I look forward to Rohrwacher’s future films.

We see a man waiting at the beach, looking towards the sea. He is dressed in a purple frock coat, wields a sword and sports a tricorn. His left arm posed on the sword and his left knee bent, the man strikes a dignified pose. He’s filmed in profile, with the horizon bisecting the frame, like in a respectable oil painting. What is he waiting for? A ship to take him home perhaps. We don’t know yet, but waiting is what Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel’s fever dream Zama is about. The man, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is a small-time magistrate in a Spanish outpost in South America at the turn of the eighteenth century. He doesn’t have much to do in the village, except solve petty disputes between European-origin locals like himself and Indians, who have now come to terms with the new colonial order and its institutional violence. Zama longs to get back home to Argentina, where he claims to have a family. In order for that to happen, though, he needs his superior to write a letter to the Spanish throne.

Adapted from a novel by Antonio di Benedetto, Zama trains its attention on the less-explored intersection between the colonial project and sexual politics of the period. Zama is a single white man besieged by tropical malady and romantic frustration. It appears that process of his transfer back home could be expedited if he fathers a child. We learn this only later in the film, so Zama initially comes across as a loner looking to let off steam. He solicits the daughters of his landlord, a group of three white girls who turn down his advances, taking him instead to be their protector. He then warms up to the wife of the local treasury minister, Luciana (Lola Dueñas), whose mixed signals lead him down a dead end. He finally does produce a child, but with a native woman, which makes the case for his transfer weaker.

Zama is a man split between his European ancestry and his South-American birth—a fact that is brought up by Luciana and others to put him down. This anxiety of not being a “real” European translates initially in Zama into a fear of losing his racial purity. Just after the opening scene at the beach, he spies on a group of women bathing, covered in mud. At first, it’s not clear if they are white, black or native. When a black woman spots him and tries to nab him, he slaps her twice. There are also instances of the Europeans around him “going native”: a white doctor comes under the spell of a witch doctor and loses his moorings. There are legends about a ruthless European renegade, Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), who does unspeakable things to his captives à la Colonel Kurtz. On the other hand, as Zama’s professional situation grows bleaker, his romantic criteria become looser. He seeks only white women in the early part of the film, while his interest slowly shifts to mestizos and then to natives.

Zama details the disintegration of the pompous official of the first shot, looming large over the colonial landscape, into a hapless man at the mercy of natives. While he despairs about his transfer, which is always postponed for fickle reasons, Zama contracts the cholera spreading through the colonies. He loses his job, moves into a ramshackle hut where he’s taken care of by native women. He hallucinates, sees ghosts, his rational worldview now questioned, as was the case with the European tourist in Jan Zabeil’s The River used to be a Man. He does pull through, though, and the film jumps a couple of decades in time. Zama is now part of a mercenary outfit searching for Vicuña Porto. He’s grown a beard; his frock coat and tricorne are tarnished, but he blends better with the landscape than he did at the film’s opening. The search ends badly and concludes with Zama reduced to a shadow of his imperial self.

Martel treats this narrative obliquely, in a pronounced anti-realist style that allows for inexplicable incident to occupy the frame. As Zama and his peers are torturing a native into confessing a crime he didn’t do, the camera remains planted on the calm face of the white men. Later, when Zama is captured by a group of natives, there’s a frantic bit of editing that imparts a misleading feeling of danger. When he visits his landlord’s daughters, one of whom is raped by a subordinate who will also compete with Zama for Luciana’s attention, the ladies move about him like the Three Graces. A llama walks into the shot as Zama is discussing with his superior in his office. Martel imprisons Zama in nested frames and details of décor, and she accentuates the environmental aspects of scenes: the heat, barking dogs, buzzing insects, the clinking of distant bells that amplify Zama’s fever-induced perception of hopelessness. I’m not sure if all of Martel’s stylistic and narrative choices are successful, but there’s a sense that every shot and edit is thought over, giving Zama an artisanal quality comparable to Jauja.

Of Interconnected Lives

Of Interconnected Lives

Every now and then, when people start saying “Indie is dead”, there comes a filmmaker, who contradicts them and redefines the course of cinema – both mainstream and parallel. John Cassavetes had ridiculed the American mainstream cinema and its incessant thriving on extravagance with his Shadows (1959) and went on to become one of the pioneers of American underground cinema. Cut to the 1980’s when gangsters were ruling Hollywood. Enter Jim Jarmusch with the short film Stranger Than Paradise (1982) which humiliated Hollywood with its normal characters and simple situations. Independent cinema was never the same again.

One can easily note that Jarmusch makes films about people. He films their lives, how they are inevitably interconnected, how their lives get impacted due to others’ all the time and how characters interchange characteristics and opinions all through their lives. What Alejandro González Iñárritu does with the most extravagant and devastating of situations, Jarmusch does using the most banal of happenings, most of them as simple as coffee table conversations and cab rides. Like Godard and Cassavetes, Jarmusch films life’s most normal moments that usually occur in between events. What the mainstream considers implicit and skips with an ellipsis, Jarmusch considers central and interesting. Indeed, his theory that the most fascinating things arise out of the most mundane events proves bang on when one watches even one of his films. The apathetic characters, their interaction (sometimes, the lack of it) and their idiosyncrasies concoct a truly riveting picture of human life.

Jarmusch puts forth his ideas right from his first film Permanent Vacation (1980) which follows the life of Aloysious Parker, a youth without a grip on life. He has lost his father and has an institutionalized mother. Afraid of being sucked into the quagmire of everyday struggle and a textbook life, he does everything in order create an atmosphere of restlessness that mirrors his own inner emotions. This is effectively put forth in the first scene where he starts an impromptu dance in the middle of a serious conversation  He interacts with various kinds of people (including a Parisian lad just like him) on his way and hears the most bizarre yet fascinating stories. Possibly the only “self-indulgent” film by Jarmusch, Permanent Vacation still resonates for its handling of a theme most popular among the youth of that time – the quest for meaning of life.  Jarmusch’s style shows its roots with its long takes and minimal speech placed over pedestrian events.

Jarmusch’s characters come as stark contrast to the ones that occur in conventional scripts. The latter are first provided a major objective that they achieve at the end of the film. The characters are then expanded and given minor objectives that they complete within each scene or sequence in order to achieve the major one. Jarmusch’s characters, on the other hand, do not possess permanent or long term objectives. They set out on of-the-moment objectives and act on impulses that may or may not be justified by their milieu. They live life as if it were not under their control. This unpredictability is another ingredient that makes Jarmuschian so unique and off the beaten track.

Stranger Than Paradise was extended into a full length film of the same name in 1984 and followed the American way of living of a young man from Hungary, his American friend and his teenage cousin who has just arrived from Hungary. The three of them spend some time in Florida where they lose all their money in a dog race and gain it back in another. Any other director would have made the race and its denouement as the central event driving the lives of the three. But Jarmusch keeps the race off screen and thrives on the petty talk and arguments of the friends with long, single shot scenes. In another similar scene at a cinema hall, the camera focuses on the characters’ faces as they watch an action film, instead of the screen. Amazingly, these usually-hidden images feel more absorbing than their driving events themselves and one feels the immediate power of the mundane that Jarmusch captures effectively.

Another intriguing aspect of Jarmusch’s style is that he loves characters that exist outside the framework of the social world. He takes up people who are outcast, outlawed and totally alien to the environment they are living in. They appear usually as foreigners, convicts and disoriented individuals. These characters seem to be anomalies in the society and their high reactivity towards their amicable yet strange world churns out the most amusing moments. These marginal characters are often filmed along the edges of the frame highlighting that they are out-of-place yet always in the picture. Although Stranger Than Paradise and Permanent Vacation had put that into execution, it was Down By Law (1986) that would take it one step further.

Down By Law follows the life of three convicts who have been framed for all the wrong reasons. They plan a simple escape technique and succeed. But what is more difficult is finding civilization after they have broken out. Typical Jarmuschian characters, they don’t seem to have any aim in life. They live for the moment and leave it to time to decide their future course. Roberto Benigni has an uncanny ability to induce energy into any kind of situations and he tops himself in this film. Again, Jarmusch keeps the escape off screen and makes the characters take the podium. Down By Law is beautifully shot in black and white by Jarmusch regular Robby Müller and out of this seemingly bland monochrome arises a stream of energy that couples itself with the amusing journey of the trio and provides such a colour to the film that no colour film could have provided.

Mystery Train (1989) would take the idea to the extreme as Jarmusch follows the lives of three sets of people staying in adjacent rooms in a hotel in Memphis – A pair of Japanese teenagers who have come to see their music idols’ starting places, a naïve Italian lady who is forced to share a room with a loquacious woman after her flight is delayed, and three natives who have committed a crime out of control.  These three situations are visibly so disparate if not for Jarmusch who starts his game of connecting the dots. He places a talkative character and a totally opposite one in each set and once again reminds us of the universality of emotions and dependence of lives. To top this, he places the soul of the city, Elvis Presley, in all their lives as they reflect upon their opinions on the legend.

Jarmusch would expand his integration of world culture in Night on Earth (1991) that documents the lives of five taxi drivers for a period of half an hour each spanning 5 different nations, languages, mentalities and emotions. With each episode lasting hardly twenty five minutes, Jarmusch examines how life offers different choices based on trivial interactions and how distinct yet similar each of their lives are. Once again, Jarmusch employs people out of the ordinary – foreigners, physically challenged, mentally challenged and the seemingly normal. He shatters our prejudices and questions the notions of sympathy and happiness using the tritest conversations. Almost the whole of the film is inside vehicles but the film never once feels claustrophobic or overly long.

It is not only in the characters that Jarmusch captures the spirit of the era, but also in the settings and locales where he places his quirky characters. Almost all of his films are shot in shot in warm little towns in the USA and the quiet neighbourhood is invariably captured by a tracking shot, perhaps his favorite, which reveals the shops, houses, people and atmosphere of the area instantly. Additionally, Jarmusch uses the mellowest of sounds in his soundtrack prominently featuring R&B, jazz and rap that typifies the locales and age in which the film is made. Needless to say, these sounds blend with the deliberately paced imagery to produce the apt atmosphere for the characters to develop.

The tracking shot features strikingly in Jarmusch’s next and most popular film Dead Man (1995) that employs all of Jarmusch’s themes but transcends into a whole new dimension and takes metaphysical meanings. Johnny Depp plays William Blake who has come into a weird little town called Machine and soon gets outlawed for murder. He meets Nobody (Gary Farmer), another pariah who seems to believe that Depp is indeed the reincarnated version of the late English poet and gets him out of the limbo that he is stuck in, the one between the hell called Machine where bigoted “philistines“ chase foreigners away and the heaven called death. Although set in a remote time and age, Dead Man’s characters still have all the characteristics as those of other Jarmusch’s. Both Blake and Nobody are outcast characters that meet up to produce engrossing results. They do not know what each other is saying but still entertain each other.

Similar themes and style is carried onto his next film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) that follows the life of a modern samurai/hit man Ghost Dog played by Forest Whitaker. He reads ancient Japanese text and lives by the samurai code of honour. He speaks sparsely and his only friends seem to be the little girl with whom he discusses books and the Haitian ice-cream vendor Raymond who can only speak French. Ghost Dog may first seem like an atypical Jarmusch film for it is more narrative-driven than any of his previous films. But Ghost Dog himself is very much like his predecessors created by Jarmusch. He too is a man without a worry for the future who lives for the moment, for the book says so. Like Nobody and Blake of Dead Man, Ghost Dog and Raymond do not understand each other a bit, but still are the best of friends and lick their ice creams over one way conversations.

Interestingly, his most trashed film Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) forms the central point of exhibition of most of Jarmusch’s themes. Made from discrete pieces of shorts that Jarmusch had made as early as 1986, Coffee and Cigarettes comes as a collection of vignettes each involving not more than three people over a cup of coffee and a pack of cigarettes. The black coffee is accompanied with the white cigarettes placed on the alternating black and white pattern on the tablecloths. These adversarial colours are woven together with the gray of the cinematography. Similar to the colours, these seemingly contrasting and independent people’s lives seem connected and influenced forever by the petty conversations over the coffee table that they indulge in.

Consider the sweeping first segment of the film called “Strange to meet you” where Roberto Benigni meets Steven Wright. Wright tells Benigni that he has to rush as he has an appointment with a dentist. But he does not want to go. Benigni tells him that he has got a toothache and he can go instead. So Wright gives him the address and Benigni hurries off informing Wright that he has an appointment with a dentist and has to rush. And that’s it – two lives have interchanged just like that! Not only within segments, but even across segments, Jarmusch ties his theory of interconnected lives and questions the episodic nature of the film.

Jarmusch arguably reaches the peak of his creative prowess in Broken Flowers (2005). Bill Murray (magnificently) plays Don Johnston (with a‘t’!), a quintessential Jarmuschian character with total passivity to the world around. He lives life for the sake of living and his wife jilts him for the same. One great day, he receives a letter from supposedly one of his old flames about his son that he never knew about. He does not care, but upon a nudge from his nosey spy/neighbour, he goes on a trip to find out who had sent the mail, but only as a perfunctory activity. Nothing much happens but at the end of the film he feels an urge to find out the identity of his true son. Jarmusch does the unthinkable here by pushing the inert Jarmuschian character into the clockwork of the daily world and providing him a direction in life. The camera fades to black as the hitherto impassive Johnston shows traces of emotional fatigue.

Some may consider it a running gag that Jarmusch loves, but most of his films have some kind of strange entity running through them like a mysterious train. Dead Man had the tobacco gag, Mystery Train had Elvis Presley and the number 22, Broken Flowers had the Don Johnston confusion and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai had the cartoons. In Coffee and Cigarettes many character across various segments utter the same line to our amusement. “Nikola Tesla perceived the earth to be a conductor of acoustical resonance” they say and that is exactly what Jarmusch emphasizes. Not only do the characters seem connected by the strange statement, but the earth itself seems to conduct their thoughts and acts, stressing on the continuous interaction of lives and characters, independent of geography.

Fascinatingly, this kind of integrating thread that Jarmusch weaves runs across multiple films and even more bafflingly, in his life itself. For instance, the heavily accented Benigni in Down by Law tells his cell mates that he had killed a man with a number 8 snooker ball and we see the equally crazy Benigni with the same accent in Night on Earth where he is using a number 8 snooker ball as the head of the gear of his vehicle! Broken Flowers has Bill Murray asking for only coffee whereas the same Murray had played the coffee addict in Coffee and Cigarettes. The Elvis Presley mystery carries over form Mystery Train into Coffee and Cigarettes. And the Nobody character from Dead Man appears in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai too.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) bear one such remarkable relationship between them. Both films deal with men, assassins to be precise, who live the life of samurais, but in cities. They are loners and adhere to the moral code defined by the book of samurai. When Melville approached Alain Delon for the lead role, he found out that Delon was immensely into Japanese culture and had his bedroom decorated with antiques related to Samurai Culture. Similarly, when Jarmusch approached Forest Whitaker for the role, he discovered that Whitaker was very much interested in the Eastern culture and martial arts! Now that’s what I call interconnected lives!