Pan’s Labyrinth: film of dark fantasy, horror and historical drama that inspires hope and courage

Guillermo del Toro, “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
This is an excellent film that successfully combines dark fantasy and horror with historical drama set in fascist-ruled Spain in 1944 to inspire people with hope and courage. The Spanish Civil War has ended several years before 1944 with the triumph of General Franco and his forces though rebels still hide in the forests, building up an underground network of resistance. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) brings his heavily pregnant wife Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her daughter from a previous marriage, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), to his country homestead. Carmen is severely ill and in no fit state to travel but Vidal insists his son must be born “where his father is”. Where his father is means hunting down, capturing, torturing and/or killing the rebels with as much savagery as dear old Dad relishes. Literally hitting the odd rabbit poacher around the face with a bottle and killing him is par for the course. Reading bed-time stories to Junior must be out of the question, which would kill any attempts on big sister Ofelia’s part to be acquainted with the baby as she fills her life with books of fantasy, in particular one about a princess who left her underground kingdom to live in the world above, got lost, aged and died. The underground realm is still open to the return of the princess’s spirit if she were to undertake three tasks to prove her identity and worth.
Hey, hey, Ofelia discovers she may be that princess as a couple of insect-fairies introduce her to a monstrous faun (Doug Jones) living in a circular labyrinth deep in the garden next to Vidal’s homestead. The faun commands her to perform the three tasks within a certain time period. They turn out to be dangerous and difficult as they mirror her knowledge and experience of the world around her and take on aspects of the brutal and severe society she lives in and of the values and beliefs she has been taught. In one task, she just manages to escape being eaten by another monster (also played by Doug Jones) and the faun, on hearing the details surrounding that escape, tells the girl she is not fit for her tasks and refuses to deal with her any more.
In the meantime her stepfather Vidal lives out his own fantasy about creating a new Spain and bringing up his son to know of his father and grandfather’s deeds, grand to Vidal but horrible and undeserving of celebration to viewers; he fails to see that his housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) and Carmen’s doctor (Alex Angulo) are secretly helping the resistance. Eventually the two are caught: Mercedes manages to mutilate Vidal and escape but must leave Ofelia behind; the doctor is executed. Carmen gives birth to a healthy son and dies. Ofelia is left alone with Vidal, the faun comes back to her with the third task, and from this point on, Ofelia and Vidal’s respective fantasy worlds draw closer to the inevitable collision.
The actors play their roles efficiently but they are only playing stock characters as the film’s focus is on celebrating hope and imagination in situations and environments where people, institutions and governments actively or passively repress creativity and intelligence and turn populations into expendable robots. This applies as much to contemporary Western societies where people’s thinking and imagination are shaped and dictated to by distant unseen individuals and corporations with hidden agendas as it does to societies where the brainwashing and repression are more obviously blunt, brutal, clumsy and at times backfiring on the regimes’ objectives. It’s easy to criticise Baquero’s blank and stoic portrayal of Ofelia but viewers must consider such a portrayal as a distancing device among other things (for example, being po-faced would not attract the attention of a hated step-parent); likewise, Lopez’s portrayal of Vidal which can be theatrical and makes him as much a comic and pathetic character as a black-hearted sadistic villain has to be seen in the same light. The scene where Vidal tries DIY surgery is full of black humour: it shows just how insecure about his own masculinity Vidal is, that he refuses to ask for help. Perhaps this says something about the nature of repressive authoritarian regimes: they look secure on the outside but on the inside, who knows how really fragile they are?
The adult female characters Carmen and Mercedes are worth mentioning as complementary opposites. Carmen is a helpless mother, symbolic of the common people whose only function is to do the bidding of the political and social elites, represented by Vidal’s dinner party guests who include the local gentry and padre; her death in childbirth demonstrates her complete exploitation (she’s only useful to Vidal as incubator of his heir) and by implication that of the people she represents. Mercedes is more of a mother to Ofelia, promising to rescue her, but can’t help the girl even when she keeps her promise; I see her as representative of the common people’s resistance to oppression which, however heroic, can be fallible and sometimes wavering.
Ultimately when two fantasy worlds clash, one survives, the other crumbles and apparently disappears. Ofelia is confirmed as the true princess of the underground kingdom in a self-sacrificing act that recalls Christ’s crucifixion. Vidal’s wishes for his son to know his father and grandfather and for the child to continue his ancestors’ deeds come to nothing in a scene where he gives the baby to Mercedes that demonstrates how truly far gone in his fantasy world Vidal is. Yet the reality is that Vidal’s new Spain continues for another 31 years while Ofelia’s world disappears with her with only fragments left behind. After 1975 it seemed that Vidal’s Spain had gone forever but with the country now on the brink of bankruptcy, the Zapatero government preparing to send the army in against striking air traffic controllers at this time of writing (7 December 2010) and various sectors within Spanish society clamouring for a rehabilitation of Franco and asserting that he “saved” the country from its “enemies”, can we really be sure that Vidal’s fantasy world simply isn’t lying underground, waiting to grow again?

Taste of Cherry: looks simple and minimal but carries an uncompromising message for viewers

Abbas Kiarostami, “Taste of Cherry” (1997)

 Source: www.thefilmpilgrim.com

On the surface this looks like a very minimalist, in parts improvised film about a man contemplating suicide who implores three people to help him. Mr Badii (Homayoun Ershadi, in his acting debut) who may or may not be a taxi driver – most interpretations of the film assume he is but I didn’t see anything in the film that suggests what his occupation is – drives around Tehran’s industrial and working class zones in his Range Rover trying to pick up a passenger among the various loitering men he sees. At first the suggestion is he may be trying to pick up a potential boyfriend or male prostitute and some of the men he talks to certainly think that’s what he wants. A shy teenage army recruit decides to get into the car and Badii takes him on a long journey out of town and into a semi-barren area where dirt roads twist and wind around hills in an invisible labyrinth. Naturally the recruit wants to know why they passed his barracks and Badii tells him he’s needed for a job. Badii needles some information out of the youngster and we learn the boy is from a Kurdish farming family and needs money to support his relatives and maybe resume his schooling. Badii offers to pay the youngster huge sums of money if he will do what Badii wants him to do. Deep in the scrubby desert, Badii stops on a particular stretch of road, points out an empty grave next to a tree (both never seen in the film) and tells the boy that he, Badii, plans to swallow all his sleeping pills and lie in that grave overnight. The boy’s job is to return the following morning and call out to him: if Badii responds, the boy is to help him out of the grave; if Badii doesn’t reply, the boy is to bury him. The teenager, spooked, refuses to help Badii in this way and dashes off to rejoin his barracks.

Badii gets back in his car and drives down to what looks like a waste tip supervised by a lone security guard. This guy turns out to be an Afghan and in his conversation with Badii, we learn that there are some 2 – 3 million Afghans working in Iran, probably in jobs and industries where the pay is bad and the work is hard and dangerous; and that while Iran was preoccupied with the decade-long war against Iraq in the 1680’s, few Iranians spared a thought for their Afghan neighbours fighting the Soviets in a tougher war in the same period. Badii offers to drive the security guard around to relieve the tedium of his work but the guard declines: he has a friend, a young seminarian, come to visit and keep him company. Badii sees the seminarian in the near distance so goes out to see him and offers him a ride. The seminarian accepts and so again Badii asks him about his background: the fellow has come from Afghanistan seeking labouring work so he can continue his theological studies. Badii offers him the same job and money he offered to the soldier; the seminarian argues that suicide is forbidden by their common Islamic faith. Badii protests that God surely allows people to kill themselves if not doing so is the greater sin because of the risk of harming other people if one were to continue to live. The seminarian continues to put up a weak and dogmatic religious argument against suicide and soon leaves Badii.

After a period of despair, Badii picks up a third man, this time an Azeri or Turkish man, Mr Bagheri (Abdolhossain Bagheri), apparently a simple, warm-hearted chap who in turn is subjected to Badii’s suicide proposition. Bagheri then talks about his own attempt to commit suicide by hanging from a mulberry tree and about how he eventually was dissuaded from killing himself by a quirk of fate: he eats a mulberry and finds it delicious. This leads to a lengthy amble about appreciating nature and simple things, and not to allow life’s pressures to overcome one’s thinking as eventually they will pass. If one changes one’s outlook, one can change the world. The pop psychology advice makes little impression on Badii. Bagheri agrees to Badii’s proposition as he could use the money for his sick son and Badii drops him off at a natural history museum where he works. Suddenly anxious, Badii visits the museum and meets Bagheri again, this time a technical or scientific worker specialising in taxidermy, who brusquely assures him he’ll be at the graveside at the crack of dawn.

Up to this point the film has been very straightforward if minimal and stingy with details. We know nothing about Badii, why he spends his time driving aimlessly around soliciting help for an elaborate suicide plan, how he has come into so much money if he’s supposedly a taxi driver (an occupation not known for making easy money – and Range Rovers are hardly what I’d call typical taxi cars) and what has happened that he is so despondent that he wants to end his life. The lack of specific background knowledge about Badii makes him a representative of humanity rather than a particular human being. Likewise, the three people he picks up represent particular sections of Iranian society, all tied somehow to the Iranian government: the military, the religious class and the bureaucracy; they also represent three stages in the life of a human being: youth, early adulthood and early old age. In addition Bagheri isn’t what he seems at first: in the car, he babbles on and on about living in the moment, enjoying nature and having a different outlook on life; he quotes poetry and sings a song to cheer up Badii; he understands Badii’s pain and readily talks about his own suicide attempt. Out of the car and in the grounds of the museum, Bagheri appears in a lab coat, his entire being radiating a superior, impatient attitude – this hints at how a person’s circumstances determine his or her personality and undercuts what he told Badii in the car. This is a chilling moment which may say something about modern Iranian society that prompts some people to have split personalities to survive in it.

After the scenes with Bagheri, we see Badii shutting up his apartment, being driven back into the badlands, preparing for his death and lying in his tomb. The weather turns bad and there’s a thunderstorm. The film suddenly blacks out and pops out into an apparently washed-out dream sequence (this part of the film is recorded on a handheld video recorder) with soldiers chanting and marching up a hill to where Badii’s grave lies. Kiarostami and his film crew appear on another part of the hill filming the soldiers and issuing instructions to their leader via cellphone or walkie-talkie while actor Ershadi waits nearby. In the distance, Badii’s car zooms off with an unseen driver. I was disappointed initially at never learning if Badii lives or dies but this is not what the film is about: among other things it’s about one man’s questioning of the world he has to live in through the theme of suicide. He interrogates others through their experience about this world and finds their answers unsatisfactory or contradictory. He questions the army recruit about his experience of the army and the recruit is unable or reluctant to reply, perhaps because his experience is so different from what Badii remembers of his own military experience. He interrogates the seminarian and the seminarian’s answers demonstrate book-learning and deference to authority rather than understanding of what he’s learned. Badii interrogates the taxidermist whose answers seem New-Age banal and whose work and later attitude undermine everything he says. Life around Badii also exhibits contradictions, some a bit cruel: after he finds someone who agrees to help him commit suicide, he suddenly sees flowers and trees in a flourishing landscape, he sees a young woman who asks him to take a photograph of her with her boyfriend and all of a sudden women start appearing, walking with school-children or attending Bagheri’s lecture at the museum.

Significantly the women we see, though dressed according to conservative Islamic doctrine, seem to be educated middle class or independent types while most men in the film are poor, ignorant or in a position of serving others: in a severe theocratic society dominated by men, that’s a very strange contradiction indeed. Badii himself may be a contrast to these men: his demeanour and manner, and some of the things he says, suggest he is highly educated and cultured and perhaps finds himself an outsider which would give his pain an existential edge. He is unaware of his own contradictions: he’s intent on ending it all yet takes care going down an unsteady ladder, refuses a meal because it might set off a bad allergic reaction and manages to avoid two serious car accidents. He remembers his time in the army as the happiest time in his life, meeting people and making friends, yet he must have also been shooting and killing lots of people. Perhaps this knowledge is a burden on his mind and has contributed to his decision to end his life?

The film’s simple style belies its careful construction: much of the time we see Badii framed by the windscreen or the window of his car and we never see him and his passenger together in the one shot. It’s as if we’re not just eavesdropping in the conversations between him and his passengers, we’re actually in their heads going from one to the other. At times the camera draws away from the car to take in the scenery which becomes very significant: from the time Badii meets the soldier and presents his proposition to the time Bagheri accepts it, the film is centred in a barren, scrubby landscape of hills and dirt roads that snake around them and fork off into different directions. This landscape perhaps reflects Badii’s inner world, going around in circles each time someone rebuffs him. When he is at his most desperate, he is in a landscape of rubbish dumps and flying dust clouds, reflecting his fragmenting state of mind. Only after Bagheri agrees to the deal does the landscape spring into life. The changing moods of the landscape are in stark contrast to Ershadi’s acting: Ershadi usually has just one expression and one even tone of voice throughout the film which on paper wouldn’t qualify him as having any acting skill at all, yet by his movements and sometimes doleful look in his eyes, and the slight speed in his voice in scenes with the seminarian and Bagheri, he actually does convey something of Badii’s inner anguish and despair. The totally unexpected thing is that since making “Taste of Cherry”, Ershadi has had a steady if not prolific acting career; I’ve seen him in “The Kite Runner” where he had a significant acting and speaking role and his character had to age 10-15 years, and for someone of limited range and no training, he was impressive in an unassuming and straightforward way.

Most reviewers see “Taste of Cherry” as a gentle and meditative film about enjoying life’s pleasures but I find its real underlying message severe and uncompromising. I think Iranian viewers (the target audience) are asked to question the kind of society they live in that causes people like Badii to conclude that he and others would be better off if he killed himself. The answer doesn’t look good: some recent statistics released by the Aria Strategic Studies Center and quoted by the Iranian Labor News Agency show that 30% of people in Tehran have severe depression and another 28% suffer mild depression with some of causes being violence by security and law enforcement, mass arrest and murder of arrested citizens in torture centres or during protests and the results of the 2009 Presidential election, and other causes relating to the falling economic situation which is partly caused by a corrupt and incompetent government. (Source: Payvand News of Iran, www.payvand.com) I don’t know if Tehran is representative of Iran but it does have about 18% of the country’s population. Telling people living in a brutal and grinding police state that they should live for the moment and take pleasure in the simple things in life becomes an insult when I see figures like these.

Fitzcarraldo: epic adventure marred by flat, over-involved plot with little human-interest tension

Werner Herzog, “Fitzcarraldo”, Werner Herzog Filmproduktion (1982)

For all the off-screen controversies and shenanigans that bedevilled the making of this film, “Fitzcarraldo” turns out to be a decent enough work. Like its protagonist Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald aka Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski), the film aspires to epic visionary heights, epitomised by the Herculean task of dragging a huge steamer over logs up and over a steep mountain in dense Amazonian rainforest with much of the work done by local people in the area, but for all that the film falls far short of masterpiece territory. The plot is meandering and fairly involved for a mainstream audience and I’d say that, here and there, a good 10 to 15 minutes in total could have been shaved off the film. Bogged in a fair amount of expositionary detail so as to make Fitzcarraldo’s voyage more incredible, the plot ends up flat. The actual trip up the Amazon river and its tributaries and over the mountain includes enough shady characters that conflict, setbacks and the odd sabotage look more than likely but apart from a mass desertion and a couple of deaths, the whole journey proceeds more smoothly with more luck and deus ex machina twists than should have been allowed.

The plot is based on a real incident in the life of a 19th-century Peruvian rubber magnate, Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald, who did indeed transport a steamer overland from one river to another: the difference is that he had the ship disassembled, transported in pieces by human and maybe animal labour, and reassembled on the shore of the other river. In the Herzog universe, such mundanity is to be disdained for the sake of drama and the fulfillment of a heroic dream. There’s got to be a plausible reason of course though Fitzcarraldo’s reason cuts plausibility quite fine: the fellow wants to build an opera house in his home town of Iquitos but his ice factory doesn’t generate enough income to support his vision so he has to swallow his pride and join the rubber plantation boom. He stakes out an area of land near the Ucayali river in Peru and is given nine months to survey it properly by the Peruvian government. Hopefully after the land is cleared of forest and converted to producing latex, there’ll be enough profits earned to start building the opera house. Reading some maps of the area provided by rival rubber baron Aquilino (Jose Lewgoy), Fitzcarraldo notices the remote land could be made more accessible to rubber markets due to a quirk in the courses of the rivers Ucayali and Pachitea: their courses happen to come so close that at their closest point they are only several hundred metres apart – close enough that a ship could be carried overland from one river to the next!

This all takes an hour to work out plus a ship must be bought and fixed up for the trip and a crew of the usual motley unreliable and ill-fitted sort must be hired. The crew includes a captain with eyesight problems (Paul Hittscher), a cook who loves wine, women and song (Huerequeque Enrique Bohorquez) and Cholo the mechanic (Miguel Angel Fuentes) who is still reporting to his ex-boss Aquilino and may harbour his own hidden agenda. That done, the ship is on its way into the Pachitea river waters and the lands of the Jivaro Indians, famous for shrinking the heads of unwanted guests. Not surprisingly most of the crew decide that the cliche about discretion versus valour applies to them so they sneak away from the steamer at night in a boat and leave Fitzcarraldo, the captain, the cook and Cholo to face the unique Jivaro hospitality. Surprise, surprise, the Jivaros are very hospitable to the extent that they happily substitute for the deserting crew, help clear the forests and cut the logs to provide rollers for the ship to travel over on land, and provide the labour to haul the ship up the mountain and over, down to the Ucayali river. It helps that in the nick of time the cook remembers a Jivaro legend about a white god coming in a huge ship who will rid the Jivaro lands of an evil curse (yeah, right – that god’s name is Quetzalcoatl, whatever). Even when a couple of native labourers get fatally squashed under the ship, their colleagues simply down tools and observe the two-day bereavement period then get back to work with no complaint. Karl Marx must be spinning in his grave.

Amazingly everything works out with no more mishap and the ship reaches the Ucayali in double-quick time after scaling the mountain’s summit. The Jivaros mischievously push the ship off for a joy-ride down the Pongo de Mainique rapids in a baptism of, uh, “fire” to appease the evil spirits afflicting their territory. Visually spectacular though this part of the movie is, with shots of the steamer buffeted about by the churning waters and nearly over-turning, it does have the feel of being an after-thought tacked on to provide a climactic thrill given that the overland trip was relatively trouble-free and everyone including the captain, Cholo and the cook actually behaved and got on well together in spite of their CV’s. After Fitzcarraldo and the ship have proved their worth to the Jivaros, the film’s prolonged denouement doesn’t quite work out as expected but Fitzcarraldo is hailed as a hero in Iquitos.

Though he wasn’t the first choice to play Fitzcarraldo – original choice Jason Robards had actually completed about half the role’s demands before dropping out due to illness and fellow US actor Jack Nicholson had been considered to replace him – Klaus Kinski turns out an excellent performance in balancing the character’s eccentricity, restless enthusiasm and sheer mania. His interactions with the Jivaros are gentle and humane, not at all what I had expected of a colonialist would-be rubber baron. His scenes with Claudia Cardinale who plays brothel owner Molly are tender and touching and Cardinale herself provides some much-needed humanity to round out Fitzcarraldo’s character and give some depth to an otherwise straightforward and rather dry adventure epic.

Much of the film has the flavour of a travelogue documentary as there are many shots, some fairly long, of tropical frontier town life and of the Amazon rainforest environment. Local people in the area were heavily involved as extras with some individuals having quite important speaking roles in the film. The film acquires a strong exotic frontier flavour but at the same time the near-documentary approach does have a distancing effect and smooths over any simmering conflict. Being a more conventional mainstream film with a definite narrative than a previous Herzog / Kinski collaboration, “Aguirre, Wrath of God”, “Fitzcarraldo” perhaps needs a less artistic approach with more emphasis on character interaction and conflict, building tension highs and lows and tightening up the preparation for the voyage.

The comparison with “Aguirre …” is relevant as both films focus on a character’s obsession with achieving his dreams: whereas Aguirre is interested in fame, wealth and power and ends up destroying himself and everyone around him, Fitzcarraldo dreams of bringing high art and culture to his home town and everything he does has that goal in sight. It’s a noble dream lacking in egoism and promising to benefit everyone, rich and poor alike, and therefore worthy of fulfillment. Good to see that the Herzog universe, however bloated it is, still adheres to a morality which rewards people who dream big but beneficial dreams and punishes those who follow selfish goals.

It could have been a really enjoyable if still long epic trip into the heart of the Amazon rainforest with dangers and fights aplenty, and Fitzcarraldo probably having to dodge near-death a few times and crack a few heads together, but for all the conflict and fighting that went on behind the film’s scenes, the result itself is surprisingly smooth and free of tension. A different director might have concentrated more on the potential human conflicts inherent in such an enterprise but then the whole film would be completely different: no comic scenes of a real steamer being dragged up the mountain for one thing …

Aguirre, Wrath of God: understated study of obsession and megalomania is worth watching

Werner Herzog, “Aguirre, Wrath of God”, Werner Herzog Filmproduktion (1972)

A dramatic fictional rendition of the 1560 expedition of the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Ursua down the Maranon and Amazon rivers, and his overthrow and murder by rebel soldiers led by Lope de Aguirre, becomes a study of the pursuit of impossible ambitions and obsession to the point of madness and destruction in the hands of German director Werner Herzog. The film brought early acclaim to Herzog as a director and to lead actor Klaus Kinski for his acting, and was the first of five film collaborations that started with “Aguirre …” and ended with “Cobra Verde” in the late 1980’s. The two might have made more films together if Kinski hadn’t died in 1991: though Herzog and Kinski had a love-hate relationship to the extent they both apparently plotted to kill each other while working on “Aguirre …”, they at least respected each other professionally to want to work together again on further movie projects.

The first several frames of “Aguirre …”, where the actors are traipsing down a narrow path on a steep mountain side, carrying cannon and a heavy sedan-chair among other things, are at once hair-raising for sheer audacity and the danger involved, and breath-taking for the scenery. The expedition that’s just come down this way is under the command of Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles), younger brother of the more famous Francisco who found and brought down the Inca empire in Peru, in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. Separated from the nearest Christian settlement by hundreds of miles, Pizarro splits his expedition into groups and puts one such group, 40 men in total, under the control of Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) with Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) as second in charge, to go on ahead by rafting downstream. Joining this group are Ursua’s wife Inez (Helena Rojo), Aguirre’s teenage daughter Flores (Cecilia Rivera), the monk Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) and an aristocrat Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling). Almost immediately after Ursua’s group starts its trip, it runs into trouble: one raft with several men gets stranded in an eddy in the Amazon river and the rest of the group debate as to how to rescue them with Aguirre suggesting the raft be abandoned. A rescue group eventually reaches the other side of the river to rescue the stranded men but discover they have been killed mysteriously. The rest of the rafts then get washed away by the river and Ursua tries to return to Pizarro’s main expedition but Aguirre, eager to find El Dorado and win fame and wealth, leads a rebellion and replaces Ursua with Guzman as nominal leader. Ursua is tried in a kangaroo court and found “guilty” but Guzman as judge spares his life.

Aguirre fetes the foolish Guzman as emperor of a new territory and the rebels formally proclaim their breakaway from the rule of Spain. They build a new raft and sail down the Amazon but over time, starvation, isolation and attacks by hostile natives who never confront the soldiers directly (there are no actual scenes of fighting in the film) take their toll on the men. Yet they continue their quest for El Dorado as Aguirre is an oppressive leader who punishes disobedience and disloyalty with death and only Inez de Ursua dares to challenge his authority. Guzman is found dead, presumably murdered, and Ursua follows him soon after in death. Shortly after, Inez deserts the failing group. Eventually an attack by unseen Amazon natives wipes out the group including Flores and only Aguirre is left alive, nursing his obsession and going mad as the raft continues its fruitless journey downstream.

Viewers expecting much melodrama, frenzied action, shouting, hammy acting and bloody scenes will be very disappointed: the whole film is shot and directed very minimally so it has the air of a nature documentary or home movie. Acting and dialogue are minimal as well with a sketchy, mostly improvised narrative. The film in its last 30 minutes has the quality of a bad dream and a magic realist moment of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez sort comes late in the proceedings when the starving and delirious soldiers spy in the distance a galleon stuck in a tree far above the ground and start arguing over whether the scene is for real or they’re just hallucinating. Of course the symbolism of that sighting is completely lost on the men, let alone the immediate physical dangers it portends. Kinski’s performance as Aguirre is restrained, studied and calculating: his madness is more implied than open in the increasingly contorted way he stands and struts about and in the way he looks at the camera in close-ups, his head aslant, his eyes glassy and staring. Originally Kinski wanted to play Aguirre as a crazed maniac and clashed with Herzog over his portrayal; Herzog allowed Kinski to blow his top off and then filmed Kinski after he had calmed down. I’m not sure that I’d accept Kinski’s interpretation if he’d been allowed his way: I might have found it shocking at first, amusing second and then tiresome and campy. Under Herzog’s interpretation, Aguirre’s madness seems more plausible, as much caused by circumstances as the man’s own ambitions, and there’s a suggestion that even after the story has ended, Aguirre’s madness deteriorates further with the arrival of the monkeys. The boredom of life stuck with other barmy people on the raft, the frustration of following a dream that may not be real after all, the effects of starvation, fear of the forest and the unknown, and ever-present death … all these make more impression with matter-of-fact direction than a more conventional story-telling approach might have done.

The minimal camerawork with its long shots enables the Amazonian environment to emerge as a significant character in its own right: the river traps a number of men in a whirlpool and the forests along its sides hide dangers and unimaginable horrors beneath their silent leafy canopy. Staring at the bland, banal greenness all day long, knowing what terrors lurked within and expecting death at any moment, any sane person might go clean round the bend. Small wonder that Inez, once ashore again and in some kind of trance, wanders away into the forest and allows it to swallow her up. You become aware of the camera only when it starts to circle the raft at the very end, mimicking the whirlpool that trapped the other raft early on and emphasising Aguirre’s extreme isolation and descent into madness.

Understated and minimal as it is, the film’s not likely to appeal to most people expecting a strong narrative and lots of continuous action and dialogue that push the plot. Yet for all the long shots where you’re just looking at trees, people’s immobile faces, reflections in the river or even a mouse collecting its babies, the pace of the film is surprisingly fast for something that seems so static. It’s arguable that the spare approach makes a deeper impression on people than one where there’s so much busyness that viewers end up remembering very little of what they see and hear. Even so, I’d still recommend people should watch the film for a number of reasons: true, it’s entirely fictional but seeing people cooped up on a raft trying to cope with boredom, hot and sticky weather and getting on each other’s nerves in an unfamiliar and frightening environment may tickle some folks’ fancy (they’re the people fixated on watching “Survivor”); and among other things you become aware there are different approaches to telling a story which need not be all about action and fighting. As arthouse or cult movies go, “Aguirre …” is one of the easier ones to watch as there’s still a definite narrative and just enough loopiness for a mainstream audience to accept as credible.

The real Lope de Aguirre was perhaps very much the man Kinski had in mind: the man was a megalomaniac and paranoid who, as in the film initially, followed Pedro de Ursua with 300 soldiers and several hundred natives on an expedition down the Maranon and Amazon rivers in 1560. In 1561, Aguirre overthrew Ursua and then Fernando de Guzman and took over the expedition, had himself proclaimed prince of Peru, Tierra Firma and the Chilean provinces, and led his men to the Atlantic Ocean via the Orinoco river, destroying native settlements along the way. He reached Barquisimeto in Venezuela where he was attacked by forces loyal to Spain. Realising his situation was hopeless, he killed his teenage daughter Elvira, who had accompanied him, to save her from being raped and mistreated as the child of a traitor. He was captured, shot and beheaded and his body was cut up into pieces and thrown into the streets.

Agora: Hypatia’s life and times not done justice by film plot and structure

Alejandro Amenabar, “Agora” (2010)

This Spanish production presents a fictional account of the final years and death of the Greek female scientist / mathematician / philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria. In Western literature, the death of Hypatia has often symbolised the decline of classical Greco-Roman civilisation and the values associated with it (in particular, free scientific inquiry and questioning / re-examining one’s beliefs and authority) and the rise of early Christianity and the values associated with that (unquestioning belief and faith in authority, literalism, bigotry and intolerance, the repression of women) and the film picks up this representation to decry religious authoritarianism and the damage it can cause. It’s an ambitious film with beautiful sets and actors with talent swanning around in gorgeous costumes but it’s let down by a confused and broken story that tries so hard to be relevant to modern audiences that clarity and emotional drama got left out.

As Hypatia, reputedly a woman of great beauty as well as of intellect, Rachel Weisz is not a bad choice: she does a good job with what she’s given though I think the film-makers could have given her more meaty work. The real-life Hypatia exercised some political and intellectual influence and leadership in Alexandria, and in this aspect of her life, Weisz isn’t quite so convincing as she is Hypatia the scientist: at one point in the film, she suggests that her persecutor, Cyril of Alexandria (Sami Samir), should be arrested but on what basis, she doesn’t say and doesn’t back up her statement with argument or emotional force. As slave-owner to Davus (Max Minghella), Weisz’s Hypatia should be more ambiguous than she is: true, she’s gentle and treats him well when she feels he deserves it or gets hurt but when the plot calls for her to treat Davus as the slave he is, she isn’t severe or commanding enough. Spending much of her screen time trying to reconcile her Neoplatonic beliefs about an earth-centred universe where the planets move in perfect circles with actual astronomical phenomena that suggest something else – and finding the solution to her questions in a heliocentric view of the universe in which the earth and its sister planets revolve around the sun elliptically – Weisz’s Hypatia strikes me as a refined and perhaps detached aristocrat who seems at a loss as to how to deal with the changing social and political realities that eventually claim her life. She offers no opinions on the various religious ideologies vying for the Alexandrian citizens’ hearts and minds and can only say that she believes in philosophy (but what kind, the film doesn’t say).

The film’s plot is mired in a fictitious love triangle of Hypatia, her student Orestes (Oscar Isaac) who later becomes prefect of Alexandria, and the slave Davus: since Hypatia spurns both Orestes and Davus as lovers, and these two never actually meet, why do the film-makers even bother setting the three of them up in the first place? Davus, fed up with Hypatia’s condescension towards him (he is her slave after all, what does he expect?), converts to Christianity and leaves her service to join Cyril’s congregation but finds himself torn between his loyalty to Christianity and his passion for Hypatia. Orestes goes from being an ardent, red-blooded pagan wannabe suitor to an ineffectual, morally conflicted Christian politician who admits to feeling lost without Hypatia’s advice. That’s about all the character development the film offers and it’s wasted on two support roles. Of the characters of Hypatia and her enemy the Bishop of Alexandria, and their motives for being and acting the way they do, there is no development: Hypatia is just a self-interested geek who sometimes dabbles in politics and the Bishop is a sinister cult leader who manipulates his followers all the way through the film. Wearing black turban-like cloths around their heads, these followers are made to resemble current enemy flavour of the day the Afghan Taliban in case we don’t quite get the message.

The film’s earnestness and desire to relate Hypatia’s times to us modern ignoramuses is emphasised by the camera’s occasional pulling back from the action, right, ri-i-ight back to take in a Google Earth satellite view of Alexandria (lovingly done at times, as if to say, wow, isn’t this reconstruction of an ancient city beautiful?) and of northern Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean region. We get the picture: religious bigotry and violence existed 1,600 years ago as it does now in the same parts of the world. The implication is a bit despairing, as if the conflict has always been an ongoing thing and only the actors change; first it was Christians versus pagans then Jews, now it’s Jews versus Muslims. The film breaks in half with two time periods in Hypatia’s life, one in which the Christian mobs pick on the pagans and sack their temple and library, the other taking place several years later with pagan worship outlawed so the Christians have to sledge the Jews instead. In the intervening period, Orestes has converted to Christianity and his character mellowed while Cyril has been promoted to Bishop of Alexandria. If viewers don’t get lost trying to figure the connection between these two arbitrarily chosen periods and why Orestes has become Christian and how his personality can have changed so much while Cyril stays much the same but with better pay and the lifestyle to match, I’ll be surprised. 

The film might have done better if Davus had been made the main character and observed his mistress’s downfall and death; he might also come to realise he has been brainwashed by Bishop Cyril and try to break away from him. Usually the purpose of having a fictional character in a movie about real-life people and events is to provide a focal person for the audience to follow the action and maybe comment on it. Through Davus’s eyes we might have seen Hypatia as a different woman, one more authoritative perhaps, more arrogant even, arrogant enough to think her status as an intellectual, political advisor and local celebrity warmly regarded by both Christians and non-Christians alike would protect her from a lynch mob. We might have seen the attraction of Christianity for someone like Davus and the danger of religious manipulation and extremist behaviour, and understand his inner conflict better.

As it is, the film is a good-looking introduction to a historical figure most people know little about in a period of ancient Roman history not previously covered by most films that cover the Roman Empire. I find it a shame that “Agora” is let down by an unnecessary plot vehicle, a protagonist and antagonist whose characters are rather flat compared to some others and a structure that just about derails the whole project by breaking in half. The pity is that Hypatia’s life and times contain enough real human drama and conflict about the forced retreat of science and reason before political expediency and religious extremism; the film could have made the point that Hypatia was as much a victim of Roman imperial policy and attitudes and of inaction on the part of local rulers in Roman Egypt as she was of the Christian lynch mob.

Heart of Glass: metaphor for downfall of German and Western civilisation

Werner Herzog, “Heart of Glass”, Werner Herzog Filmproduktion (1976)

An 18th-century tale of a town dependent on its glass factory becomes a metaphor for the downfall of German and Western civilisation in this early film by Werner Herzog. The unnamed town, located in Bavaria, produces glass products with a ruby-red colouring but the knowledge of colouring the glass has died with the death of the foreman, Muhlberk, at the glass factory. As a result the townsfolk lapse into depression and madness and the local landowner / factory owner, Huttenbesitzer (Stefan Gaettler), hereafter referred to as H, resolves to discover the secret of colouring the glass red for himself. He pores over old manuscripts, he threatens to exhume Muhlberk and have the local cowherd-cum-seer Hias (Joseph Bierbichler) talk to the corpse, he even has his servants barge into Muhlberk’s house to bring him an old sofa so he can rip through the cushions and search the stuffing. Later on he orders other people to take some of the ruby glass products and throw them into the lake to discover the secret (but the men flee with the items and sell them in another country). As all his schemes fail, H resorts to even more drastic measures to find the secret including murder and arson, ruining himself and plunging the town into chaos.

The pity of H’s actions and their results is that Hias has foreseen everything and tried to warn everyone of the doom that will follow; in spite of his lowly status as cowherd, he’s so good at forecasting that he can even foretell individual people’s deaths. (Why he doesn’t charge for his services remains unexplained: surely he could have forecast the wealth rolling his way if he did.) Early on in the film we meet two town drunks Anscherl and Wudy who sit in the tavern discussing what they’ve heard from Hias about how Anscherl will die. After then digesting this information in shared silence, Wudy smashes his glass on Anscherl’s head; the glass shatters but Anscherl merely brushes the shards away and blinks as if waking up. He then pours beer over Wudy’s face and Wudy barely registers the attack. At this point you realise the actors are beyond seriously drunk, in fact they’re not even drunk but either on some heavy drugs or hypnotised. A later scene in which the townsfolk walk more or less in single file shows they are all in the same mental state as Wudy and Anscherl. Herzog did indeed have all the actors except Bichbierler hypnotised which explains their odd actions throughout the film: they sit or stand staring into space with no interactions until it’s their turn to say or do something and even then, in the case of two women characters who have to scream in separate scenes, they sometimes miss their cues. (Bit like watching some very old episodes of Doctor Who where actors really did stand around on the set waiting for their turn in full view of the cameras.) This gimmick, for want of a better term, is a metaphor for the way society acts and reacts generally: we generally sleepwalk our way through life, waking up and blinking occasionally if something hits us, then going back to open-eyed sleep.

H and his obsessive quest are a metaphor too for Germany’s leaders who took their nation into two disastrous wars in mad quests for more territory and resources among other things. Like most of the actors, Gaettler has been hypnotised and camera close-ups often show him with eyes half-shut, to demonstrate the often unthinking, reactive nature of German politics. Huttenbesitzer’s father, who hasn’t stirred from his chair in twelve years, laughs at people and only gets up and walks around to look for his shoes when the town has been destroyed by fire, represents those people absorbed in petty problems and the trivia of life, failing to notice the disasters coming upon them. The maid Ludmilla can be seen to represent perhaps the workers and supporters of society, like the armed forces: she is told by Hias to leave the Huttenbesitzer mansion but continues to serve her masters faithfully and ends up a sacrifice.

While the town is collapsing around him, Hias continues to have visions about what will come: he sees a time when peasants will be the equals of townfolk and women the equals of men. His predictions trace the history of Germany through the two world wars and the American occupation. The townsfolk accuse him of having the Evil Eye and throw him into prison with Huttenbesitzer. Hias is able to escape and returns to his cave lair only to grapple with an invisible bear. The film’s budget was either very threadbare or Hias is going insane. After killing the bear, Hias “sees” an island of people at the far end of the earth in the distant future, who wonder what is at the end of the ocean horizon; four of the islanders then set off in a boat to sail to that very end to find the answer.

Everything in “Heart of Glass” serves a purpose, even the beautiful shots of nature that bookend the film: the early shots of mountain and river landscapes with overhanging clouds and the waterfall cascades, overlaid with a melodic electric guitar soundtrack by the German band Popol Vuh, exist to mesmerise the audience and put it in the right mood to see the tragic events unfurl; the later panoramic shots of the islands emphasise their remoteness in both time and space from civilisation. These scenes also emphasise the allegorical nature of the plot. Popul Vuh’s soundtrack which includes acoustic and chanting matches the style of filming and acting in its strangeness and is used sparingly and appropriately; most of the film runs without any background music and this lack together with the sparse zombie acting helps to create a sense of distance between the characters and the audience. If we feel any sympathy at all for anyone, it would be for Hias who, though the only clear-headed person here, is unable to save his people and ends up a lonely outsider losing his grip on reality; and perhaps also for Ludmilla who won’t or can’t escape when offered the opportunity. At the same time, “Heart of Glass” isn’t without moments of humour – intended humour or unintended, it doesn’t matter – as in the aforementioned scene with Wudy and Anscherl in the tavern and Anscherl’s death scene where the drunks are laid out exactly as Hias predicted. Many such scenes and others seem to be totally irrelevant to the film though they are all linked in some way.

Obviously this isn’t a film for everyone but if you’re in the right, ah, frame of mind or consciousness to see it, you shouldn’t pass it up. And if you’re not but you wish to be, you’d be better off hearing some nice instrumental Popul Vuh music rather than ask someone to whack you on the side of the head with a beer glass.

Wings of Desire: lovely and gentle meditation on divided Berlin and nature of being

Wim Wenders, “Wings of Desire” (1987)

A romantic fantasy about an angel who yearns to be human becomes a meditation on the nature of physical being and spirituality and how they complement each other under the direction of Wim Wenders in the gentle and melancholy “Wings of Desire”. Two angels, Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) watch over the city of Berlin, divided into West and East Berlin at the time the film was made, listening to the inner thoughts and feelings of the cities’ inhabitants, and seeking to preserve the history of this troubled and divided metropolis. The angels try to offer comfort to those in distress and experience a kind of delight and joy when children see them and smile. Damiel and Cassiel have lived for hundreds of years in this way, watching Berlin grow and develop, and occasionally reminisce about particular periods in Berlin’s long evolution; they even remember a time when the city did not exist and talk about glaciers having covered the landscape so their age can’t be measured in human-defined terms. No wonder then, while sitting in a convertible in an auto showroom – don’t ask why winged creatures would want to do this but they do – Damiel confesses to Cassiel that though he enjoys his immortal angel existence, he yearns to have a material body, to feel and experience mortal life as humans do, to interact with humans themselves. This desire becomes all the more urgent when one day the angels see a French trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin), performing her routines in a small circus that’s losing money and has to close; Damiel later follows Marion to her trailer and discovers she lives a lonely life with the prospect of waitressing in an endless succession of cafes and restaurants and never being able to be a near-angel again. He feels her pain, distress and loneliness but try as he can to comfort her in her loneliness, his spiritual being makes communication between him and Marion impossible.

In their travels across Berlin, the two angels encounter other people, many of them also struggling with issues of being and existence, not just their own but their city’s being and existence: they see an aged man called Homer (Curt Bois) who, unlike his ancient Greek namesake, wants to be a poet recording Berlin as a place of peace, not as a place of war; they offer sympathy and help to a pregnant woman being taken to hospital; Cassiel tries to comfort a potential suicide; and the two angels observe an American actor, Peter Falk (Falk playing himself), come to Berlin to make a film about Berlin’s Nazi history. In one memorable scene, Falk is able to sense Damiel’s closeness while buying coffee at a food bar and addresses the angel directly, wishing that Damiel could be present physically so he can offer him friendship; Damiel is only able to stand and listen to Falk but cannot reply though the audience can see in his face that he too wants to be friends with Falk. Why is it that Falk, alone among adults, can detect Damiel’s presence?

You need to sit through three-quarters of the film to find out why Falk can talk directly to Damiel and whether Damiel’s wish to be human and to connect with Marion (and she with him) succeeds. The symbolism can be puzzling to viewers unfamiliar with Berlin’s history and grappling with the notion that once upon a time it was divided between two opposed ideologies, one of which now seems dead and gone, the other looking more and more like a cartoon parody of itself and, if anything, starting to resemble the one that’s dead and gone. On paper the plot is threadbare and banal but the film is really about the nature of Being (or Sein as Germans would say) rather than doing, and in that respect it’s a very German film with a very German theme. There was an American remake “City of Angels” starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan which, being American of course, turned the film of being into a film of doing. No room for Peter Falk there.

The sketchy plot allows for an exploration of opposites within the film: Damiel and Cassiel’s angelic being opposed to mortal human being of Marion and others; Damiel’s desire to be human and Cassiel’s opposition to that desire; Falk’s improvised and plain way of speaking opposed to the often poetic lines uttered by Damiel and Cassiel, composed by poet Peter Handke; and Berlin’s past culture represented in statues and a library building opposed to its current reality represented by abandoned city lots decorated in graffiti, people in their apartments living with unfulfilled dreams and desires, and music gigs attended by groups of punk rockers. Appropriately one such gig is given by the real-life Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds who perform “From Her to Eternity”, the lyrics of which echo Marion’s loneliness and Damiel’s desire; these days Cave zips between “high” and “low” art with his music and literary output so he was a good choice to perform in the film. The opposites represent the divided nature of the city with the implied hope that one day Berlin will be reunited and its halves reconciled. Even the film’s appearance is divided between the monochrome of the angels’ point of view (representing their inability to experience Sein in full) and the colour of the human point of view. Views of Berlin showing its faded glorious past and its current grungey appearance make quite an impression on this viewer.

Bruno Ganz is perfect as Damiel, at once immortal and ageless yet naive, energetic and bursting with child-like wonder. His face especially is a wonder, all thoughts, feelings and emotions, some being experienced for the first time, all mixed in together. The scene where he and Falk finally meet for real is memorable just to see the different expressions flit across Ganz’s face and imagine the thoughts he must be having. Peter Falk is a great choice to play against the German-speaking actors with his distinctive accent and direct, warm style which would make him the least likely of all people to be a former angel (spoiler alert) – this contrast between what he is in the movie and his surface appearance simply confirms the confounding of notions of “high” and “low” culture.

Parts of the movie can drag and seem overlong, especially the scene where Damiel and Marion meet which comes across as a bit overcooked. Nevertheless it’s a lovely film that captures and muses on a particular period in Berlin’s history and evolution. I understand that to appreciate this film more fully, I need to watch the sequel “Faraway, So Close!” which, like the opposites explored here, is itself opposed to “Wings of Desire” in its being, structure, themes and characters.

Made in Dagenham: perky comedy-drama that’s a little shallow but enjoyable nevertheless

Nigel Cole, “Made in Dagenham”, BBC Films / UK Film Council (2010)
 
Much in the vein of other British comedy-dramas that revolve around social and economic problems faced by working class people and how they deal with them – think of “Brassed Off” and “The Full Monty” which dealt with coal mine closures and mass unemployment – this film is a brisk fictional dramatisation of the fight by a group of women machinists for equal pay and recognition of their skills against their employer Ford Motors in Dagenham in 1968. The story of their struggle centres around Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) who we first meet as a shy young worker, married to another Ford Motors employee at the same plant and raising two school-age children in their apartment on an estate close to the plant. Rita and her co-workers sit at machines furiously stitching together car-seat covers in hot, stifling conditions in a basement whose ceiling leaks badly whenever there is a storm. Rita seems an unprepossessing candidate for a firebrand leader for social and political change when early on she confronts her son’s teacher for caning the child for no reason and the fellow harangues her for her social and economic background, implying that this makes her a “bad” parent. Upset and close to tears, Rita flees the classroom, bumping into another woman (Rosamund Pike). Not a good start, it seems.
 
Encouraged and supported by the plant’s shop steward Albert (Bob Hoskins in an undemanding role) and co-worker Connie (Geraldine James), Rita finds the confidence and inner steel to speak up before the Ford Motors management and her union representatives to demand equal pay for work of equal skill as the male Ford workers are getting. The women machinists throw their full weight behind Rita and go on indefinite strike. Their action is noticed by the media, one thing starts to lead to another, and Rita and the other women are plunged into a round of union meetings, more demonstrations and an invitation to speak to women machinists at another Ford Motors plant who also go on strike. In the meantime, Rita’s husband (Daniel Mays) valiantly tries to manage the household. Ford Motors retaliates by shutting down its Dagenham plant, throwing the men out of work and into conflict with the women, and threatening to shut down its entire UK operations altogether if the women continue with their campaign.
 
The film does try – not successfully – to show that the women’s fight isn’t all smooth sailing. Rita comes perilously close to losing her husband and home, Connie’s involvement indirectly leads to her husband’s suicide and a young worker, Sandra (Jaime Winstone), is tempted by the Ford Motors management to model for a series of advertisements. The movie’s energy and upbeat mood steam-roll across the short episodes of tension, conflict and tragedy which is unfortunate as these periods are necessary to give audiences pause for thought and quiet away from the “on-on-on!” pace of the film and to round out the characters as three-dimensional human beings with lives away from the shop floor. Where the film does succeed is in detailing the general extent of sexual discrimination against women as a group: we become aware that in 1968 the discrimination was widespread across class divisions (the male workers at the Dagenham plant do not support the women strikers and the management tries to exploit this apathy) and many women themselves, represented by the lady Rita brushes past early on at her son’s school, internalised this discrimination as their lot in life: the stranger turns out to be a university graduate who allows her Ford Motors senior manager husband to intimidate her and treat her like a slave. In spite of her intelligence and poise, the woman, hamstrung by her class, can only offer Rita minimal support in the form of a bright red frock to wear to her meeting with starchy UK politician Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson). Watching this film, you could learn nearly as much about men’s attitudes and treatment of women and the women’s meek acceptance of such treatment in the 1960’s as from watching several episodes of “Mad Men”; there’s the added benefit of seeing how corporations used these attitudes as weapons to divide and beat working-class people and sap their collective strength, and that not even Castle was immune from being patronised by people supposedly working with and for her.
 
I wish I could say that Hawkins portrays Rita as a woman who, in the process of becoming a leader, discovers a new self and goes through significant personal change but with the way the film charges ahead once Rita challenges the union reps, her character quickly gets locked into an onwards-and-upwards rut. There’s little opportunity from then on for Hawkins as Rita to express self-doubt, anxiety and feelings of losing control over aspects of her life, and to plead with her husband and others to support the women’s cause. Without some character development, Rita becomes a bit of a stock character and her husband is reduced to wallpaper support, and an opportunity to see them both grow and develop as human beings is lost. Hoskins’s mentoring character is also reduced to cheerleader status as a result. The drama around Connie and her husband, traumatised by his war experiences, is sketchy and viewers have to guess at why he commits suicide. The actors around Hawkins provide great support and with the exception of Richardson’s slapstick scenes don’t compete for attention. Perhaps as a result, in the few scenes where both Hawkins and Richardson are absent, the film tends to stall a little, the dynamism falters and viewers will feel like yelling “Bring Rita BACK!”
 
Details like fashion, hair-styles and the music of the period add colour and zip to the film and account for some of that perky, energetic mood that must have swept the film crew and the script-writers along with the actors. For all its shortcomings, this is an enjoyable film with a positive message for all those who suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves, like Rita, thrust into positions they feel unsuited for.

Winter’s Bone: flimsy plot backgrounded by real poverty and catastrophic social problems

Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone” (2010)

Meet Ree Dolly: she’s a 17-year-old girl caring for her severely depressed mom and two younger siblings, Sonny and Ashlee, on their farm located somewhere in the Ozarks region in the southeast United States. Dad hasn’t been seen for some time and is due to appear in court on charges of illegally making methamphetamine in a backyard lab. One day the sheriff pays a visit and warns Ree that if her father doesn’t appear in court, the family property which also includes a timber-cutting business will be repossessed as Dad had put it up as part of his bail conditions. This forces Ree to set off on an arduous search for her missing father, one that forces her to beg favours of members of her extended family and to navigate and test the limits of her impoverished community’s mores and codes of honour. We discover that nearly everyone is either unemployed or, like Dad, is engaged in cooking and trafficking in methamphetamines, and the whole community has always been suspicious of the police for reasons unexplained but which must go back a long way in the area’s history. This complicates Ree’s task as we learn that people also consider her father a snitch for talking to police and therefore deserves whatever happened to him.

Flimsy plot and crime-noir conventions aside, the film is memorable for the strong performances of Lawrence and John Hawkes and its portrayal of a clannish society wracked by extreme long-term poverty and the associated problems: drug abuse, low school retention rates, teenage pregnancy, violence, distrust of police. Lawrence virtually becomes Ree with minimal or subtle acting; hard to believe she’s never been to drama school. But that may be a plus since drama school might teach students certain methods or techniques that would be out of place in a film like this where a “non-acting” acting style is called for. Contradictions in Ree’s character become credible: she has courage, she is forthright, she is smart and keeps her family together yet she’s suspicious of police and won’t ask them for help, and is sufficiently naive enough to want to enlist in the US army just to get the cash to pay her dad’s bail. Hawkes as meth addict Teardrop also reveals unexpected aspects: initially unpleasant, unpredictable, unhinged and unhelpful, he proves a loyal ally to Rees and gradually assumes a stand-offish role as guardian to her family.

The Ozark mountain community seems familiar and yet unfamiliar in surprising ways: with the men hooked on meth and with little else to do apart from cooking illegal batches of the stuff, the women preoccupied with keeping their families and networks together and policing invisible boundaries between themselves and the men, they’re like what I imagine Mafia family networks or impoverished Australian indigenous desert communities to be. The men do their thing or waste their lives on alcohol, drugs or being sick, the women do all they can to keep family and clan networks intact and functioning, both sexes keep to their specific domains with the women deferring to men in making decisions and outsiders, especially representatives of the law, are regarded with suspicion. It would be easy to caricature and criticise these insular, suspicious mountain people but Granik portrays them in all their contrariness and their culture, where it seems everyone can do almost anything with instinctive ease (chop wood, hunt and skin animals, play a musical instrument, work a farm, cook crank), with sympathy and humanity.

The aspect of this community I was unfamiliar with is the methamphetamine epidemic: before seeing this film, I was simply unaware that crank use was so widespread in the US rural Southeast; in 2003, state police in Indiana alone found 1,260 small-scale lab facilities making meth, up from 6 in 1995 (source: Wikipedia). I had imagined alcohol and narcotics abuse, dealing in illegal weapons and people joining militias and white-power groups would be the main headaches for police. The dangers of making meth, easy enough but requiring the use of toxic, inflammable chemicals in extracting and purifying it, are made all too obvious in “Winter’s Bone”: early on, Ree is called on to inspect the charred remains of a shed that housed a lab where a batch went wrong; dialogue in the scene initially suggests her father was a victim in the accident. The whole area around the shed is poisoned and the community can’t afford to clean up the land and water supply. But while it’s arguable that the environmental damage of the meth epidemic should be the community’s immediate worry, there are other more sinister forces capitalising on the people’s helplessness: the US government, capitalising on the meth addiction to increase its police-state control of the people, and on the area’s poverty to drive young kids like Ree into the US army to fight never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, surely rates as the major threat to the Ozark mountain people’s survival and integrity.

Ree does become older and wiser but her future remains uncertain; the only thing she knows that ensures she still gets out of bed in the morning and away from crank abuse herself is her family’s dependence on her, as she acknowledges to Sonny and Ashlee: “… I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back”. It’s a heartwarming statement that confirms the power of family ties but given Ree’s context, very depressing as well.

Ran: stock characters make this film merely good, not truly great

Akira Kurosawa, “Ran” (1985)

“Ran” (“Chaos” or “Revolt”) was Kurosawa’s last attempt at creating and filming an epic historical drama set in Japan’s Kamakura period when feudal warlords ruled the country. At the time he made it, it was Japan’s most expensive film ever at a budget of US$12 million, financed mainly by French producer Serge Silberman. The film’s initial inspiration was stories about a 16th century daimyo (warlord), Mori Motonari, but the screenplay was also influenced by the famous play “King Lear” by William Shakespeare.

The film revolves around aged daimyo Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) and the consequences of the decision he makes in dividing his lands and the responsibilities that attend them, among his three sons prosaically named Taro, Jiro and Saburo (“one”, “two” and “three”, played by Akira Terao, Jinpachi Neru and Daisuke Ryn respectively), while retaining his titles, the symbols and privileges of his position. Taro and Jiro happily agree to the arrangement but Saburo, foreseeing trouble as Hidetora had not exactly been a model dad or a just ruler, objects. For his disobedience, Hidetora angrily banishes Saburo who is then forced to take refuge with Fukimaki, one of two rival warlords – the other named Ayabe – wishing to marry their daughters to him. Saburo allows one of his retainers, Tango (Masayuki Yui), to continue serving Hidetora in disguise.
 
Hidetora plans to spend his twilight years boarding at Taro and Jiro’s castles in turn. It’s not long before Taro, egged on by his wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada),whose family was murdered by Hidetora, finds a way to boot out Dad and his retinue so the aged man seeks Jiro’s help. Jiro, forewarned by Taro, also finds an excuse to refuse hospitality so Hidetora finds refuge in Saburo’s recently abandoned castle and lands. Alas, even this isn’t to the older sons’ liking as they join forces to storm the castle, killing nearly all of Hidetora’s followers and forcing him to flee into the wilderness. While exulting in the destruction, Taro is killed by Jiro who had been plotting all along with his generals to usurp Big Brother.

Hidetora’s fool (Peter) and Tango locate the old man and help him find refuge with a hermit who turns out to be Tsurumaru (Takashi Nomura), young brother of Jiro’s wife Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki). Years ago, Hidetora had killed the young siblings’ parents and blinded the son. Confronted by the evidence of his evil deed, Hidetora begins to lose his sanity and leaves the shelter. Meanwhile back at the Jiro ranch, Jiro is approached, seduced and manipulated in turns by his brother’s widow, Lady Kaede, who has shrewdly guessed his ambitions and persuades him to repudiate and kill Sue and marry her instead. Sue is forced to flee for her life so she finds Tsurumaru and they go to their parents’ abandoned castle ruins. Hidetora and his two followers have also arrived there and on seeing the young people, Hidetora descends further into madness and runs onto the plains of Azusa.

Tango returns to Saburo who then prepares his army and returns to the family territories to find Hidetora. Jiro, forewarned by messengers (dontcha just love the Pony Express that operates around here? where can we get fast express delivery like that?), leads his army to meet his brother’s. In the battle, Saburo’s disciplined forces rout Jiro’s with gunfire; in the meantime, Saburo receives news of Hidetora’s whereabouts so he personally goes off to retrieve him. Jiro guesses at what he’s doing so he dispatches assassins to follow after. He then receives news that Ayabe’s army is advancing on his castle so his army hurries back with Saburo’s forces on his tail. Jiro and his generals manage to get back to defend his stronghold. One general, Kurogane, who had earlier defied Lady Kaede, confronts her and finds out she has intended all along to destroy Hidetora and his two sons, so he kills her. Anchorless, Jiro and his generals find themselves and their exhausted, depleted army facing the full onslaught of Ayabe’s fresh forces.

Saburo finds Hidetora and they joyfully reconcile but Saburo is cut down by one of Jiro’s unseen assassins. Overcome by the disaster that has resulted from his rash decision, Hidetora collapses and dies. By this time, Sue and her maid have also been killed to fulfill Lady Kaede’s wish. This leaves Tsurumaru stranded at the family castle ruins, clinging to a painting of Amida Buddha that Sue had given him – which he accidentally loses down a cliff-like wall.

It’s a splendidly shot film with great visual beauty and dynamics: Kurosawa often uses landscapes to enhance a sense of extreme isolation, as in the scenes where Hidetora and his fool hide out in the ruined castle, or to suggest chaos falling in on Hidetora when he is first cast out into the wilderness. Even the weather and the time of day are important: the film opens during a bright part of the day with thunderclouds gathering overhead and ends during sunset with a blood-red sun. In the film’s opening scene, Hidetora and his sons, mounted on horses, are standing at right angles from one other looking for something and this scene portends the division, conflict and chaos to follow. There is close attention to technical detail, at least in battle scenes and those scenes that take place in castles, some of which were built for the film, though it’s possible Kurosawa took some liberties with actual historical details for the purpose of the film. The use of guns suggests the film’s events occur during the late 1500’s / early 1600’s which coincide with Shakespeare’s life-span and it’s likely the battle between Jiro and Saburo’s forces is partly based on the Battle of Nagashino of 1575, which Kurosawa dramatised in “Kagemusha” (1980), in which the use of guns overcame cavalry.
 
Nakadai as Hidetora is credible in the way he deteriorates mentally and physically; his make-up, based on Noh play conventions, reflects his gradual downfall. At the same time he becomes less of a stock character and more of a human being with feelings and weaknesses. The problem I have with Hidetora is that, unlike Lear in the Shakespearean play, Kurosawa passes up an opportunity to have him become a more caring and compassionate person towards his fool and others. Perhaps Hidetora is restricted by his social role not to care for others lower on the social scale and indeed most characters in the movie are one-dimensional stereotypes restricted by their social niches. This is true particularly of Lady Kaede whose make-up, stylised movements and monochromatic clothing render her a highly artificial and refined alien creature nursing a demonic hatred for Hidetora’s family; she’s the least human of the whole cast. Did her upbringing as well as Hidetora’s treatment of her and her family turn her into a devil? Hidetora’s fool on the other hand, moves naturally and expresses the full range of human emotions including courage and grief, and is clearly the one sane person in a highly dysfunctional world. Harada and Peter’s performances as these two characters are by far the most memorable in the film, not least because these characters behave outside the accepted gender norms for their society and class.

My impression of “Ran” is of a world of people trained and restricted by their roles in life to act as unthinking ants for the amusement of indifferent gods, an ontological view expressed by a minor character in the film. The collapse of this society is total with the unnecessary death of Sue, so devoted to Amida Buddha and forgiving of Hidetora, and Tsurumaru’s total abandonment when he loses the painting. The conclusion  is melodramatic, perhaps overdone – even Shakespeare didn’t obliterate all his main characters in “King Lear” – but it certainly illustrates an extremely pessimistic, nihilist view of the universe. Even in this world though, I still think there’s room for character development for Hidetora and maybe his sons, and this would have made “Ran” a classic film rather than merely a very good one: the tragedies that befall them would have been so much greater and more painful, and the universe become more harsh and uncaring, if the men had come to regret their actions and tried to make amends to others, only to be smacked down for their efforts by capricious gods.