Alexander Nevsky: a well-made though not brilliant propaganda film about a Russian mediaeval hero

Sergei Eisenstein, “Alexander Nevsky” (1938)

Unashamedly patriotic and stirring action-movie propaganda for the masses and the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin at the time of release, this historical fiction drama recreates one of the two battles fought by the 13th-century Russian hero Alexander Nevsky that determined his future career as a prince and politician: the 1242 battle against and defeat of the crusading Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire on the frozen Lake Peipus which now forms part of the border between Estonia and Russia. The other significant battle which Nevsky fought and after which he was surnamed – the 1240 battle against Swedish forces on the Neva river near present-day St Petersburg – is mentioned at the beginning of the movie. “Alexander Nevsky” is straightforward in its narrative, starting with a Mongol ambassador visiting Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov) and offering him a position with the Mongols’ Golden Horde which was in charge of Moscow at the time. From there the film hops to the Teutonic Knights’ take-over of the city of Pskov near Lake Peipus where they massacre the population. The Knights march towards Novgorod city where the aristocrats and wealthy traders decide to surrender to the Knights to avoid losing their riches. Nevsky then rallies the common people of Novgorod to resist the foreigners. Interwoven with these events is a sub-plot about two warrior friends, Vasili Buslai (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo (Andrey Abrikosov), who are dead keen on marrying the demure and beautiful girl Olga (Vera Ivashova) who likes them both. She sweetly worms her way out of being forced to choose between her suitors by telling them she will only marry the braver of the two in battle.

The battle against the enemy on the frozen lake (the Battle on the Ice) takes up half an hour of the film’s running time and can be interesting to watch as soldiers seem to hack aimlessly and in all directions and there are very few scenes of stagey-looking stand-offs between individuals of opposing sides. Editing, sometimes quick, with a view to portraying the fighting from different points of view – some shots are close up, others are at a distance or from a bird’s-eye point of view – ensures the constant tussling never gets boring. Scruffy Russian soldiers hack with axes and run about here and there while the more disciplined white-clad Teutonic knights charge as ordered and the foreign cavalry, infantry and archers work together as a machine. Fear not: Nevsky does use a strategy of dividing his forces into three groups to surround the invaders on three sides. As the fight progresses, some of the Russians are exhausted and are felled by lances or blows from the enemy; there isn’t much gore but the fighting is as realistic as Eisenstein dared to go at the time. The horseback fighting scenes look a little cartoony and have the style of 1920’s-era silent film as music often plays over these scenes and the action is quick and abrupt. When the camera remembers to focus on Nevsky himself in the heat of fighting (which isn’t much actually), he’s filmed from the waist up striking with his sword at unseen enemies but not pursuing them on horseback or helping his fellow warriors fend off attacks.

Keeping in mind the circumstances in which Eisenstein made this film – he was under suspicion of disloyalty for having worked in Hollywood and Mexico in the early 1930’s, socialising with painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and writer Upton Sinclair among others, with nothing to show for his efforts – viewers will understand “Alexander …” isn’t as experimental as some of Eisenstein’s other films and is made in a way that glorifies its main character as a god-like folk hero who can do no wrong and which elevates the defenders of Novgorod as heroic yet ordinary people who, given the right kind of leadership, can do extraordinary things. The message behind the portrayal of the Russian side becomes obvious: common people have potential to be heroes but only under Communist leadership and specifically Stalin’s leadership can that potential be put to work and fulfilled. As for the Teutonic Knights, in spite of their white garb (a duplicitous ploy), they are dehumanised by their armour and helmets which cover the entire face and body and sprout talons, antlers and devilish horns. They behave as cogs in a well-oiled war machine which further emphasises their lack of humanity. On conquering Pskov, they are nasty enough to throw little kids onto flaming pyres. Foot soldiers for the enemy wear steel helmets typical of what German soldiers wore in the later part of World War 1 and which they were to wear again in World War 2. The enemy forces are led by the Grand Master who resembles a twisted, demonic version of the fair-haired, square-jawed Nevsky and receive blessings from the Roman Catholic Church whose representatives are shown as sinister and fanatical.

Remarkably given Eisenstein’s need to ingratiate himself with the Stalinist government, the film shows the tragic side of war in which bodies of both sides are strewn over the snowy ground and women search for husbands, fathers and sons and mourn their dead. Although on second thoughts this display isn’t that remarkable as Russian portrayals of war have traditionally called attention to the carnage and tragedy of war and the sorrow of families whose men have died. The film also makes a point of showing Nevsky as a merciful and just hero who pardons and frees the foot soldiers who are assumed to have been drafted against their will into the Teutonic Knights’ army. The knights themselves and their leaders are held for ransom but Nevsky throws a Russian, Tverdilo (Sergei Blinnikov), to vengeful crowds for betraying Pskov to the enemy. Again the message here is ordinary people as a group are basically good and potentially heroic but they can be led astray by the wrong sorts of leaders (read: rich capitalists, self-styled aristocrats and their allies in anti-Communist governments who think only of their own material comforts and would sell their mothers and grandmothers for more wealth) and only someone like Nevsky who loves his mother country Rus is the ideal leader.

Character development as such is non-existent: Cherkasov as golden boy Nevsky stays in heroic mode throughout (which means his end scene where he urges people to celebrate is hilarious, he is so strait-jacketed in the stereotype) and the love triangle sub-plot doesn’t quite work as it should in spite of the best efforts of Okhlopkov and Abrikosov as the suitors who are brave and heroic in battle but comic and awkward in love. Olga remains modest throughout the film and hardly demonstrates much passion for either suitor and Gavrilo himself spends much of his screen time hardly conscious. Okhlopkov puts in the best acting as a heroic fighter who manages to escape death, as a near-buffoon and as an honest suitor who admits he wasn’t the brave one in battle and nearly gets scolded by his mum.

The rousing music by Sergei Prokofiev fits in well with the sequencing of scenes and encourages the rise and fall of tension and emotion throughout the movie. For this reason, the movie is best seen in its 1995 re-recorded edition on DVD or in a cinema environment where the sound quality is good and consistent. A live orchestra playing the music soundtrack as the film screens is a bonus.

Not a brilliant piece of film-making but “Alexander Nevsky” will be of some interest to Russian history buffs and film-makers who need to know how to stage and film battle scenes in a way that retains audience attention and interest.

Taxi Driver: good study of an alienated and traumatised individual groping for purpose in a lost society

Martin Scorsese, “Taxi Driver” (1976)

As a character study of a lonely and alienated man whose mind collapses under the strain of the life he leads and the corruption he sees combined with a history of trauma and violence, this film has few peers. What makes it a great film is its portrayal of a society that has lost its way and of  characters other than Robert de Niro’s lead character Trvis Bickle who like him are searching for direction and purpose. The movie boasts excellent cinematography which captures the dreary and desperate life that Bickle leads as a taxi driver on night shift in the New York City of the mid-1970’s and which features a stunning mise-en-scène shot near the film’s end: this is a survey of a crime scene with two police officers standing frozen as if in shock, their hands still gripping their guns tightly. The sometimes florid music score by Bernard Herrmann (who scored several films for Alfred Hitchcock including “Vertigo” and “Psycho”) may sound a dated for the period but its languorous, repetitive swank and tight drumbeat percussion passages mirror Bickle’s obsessive, repeating fantasies and suit the film’s moods and tensions as they arise. The use of voice-over narration fits in with Bickle’s documentation of his activities in a notebook. The parallel plots of Senator Charles Palantine’s rise to nomination for the US Presidency and Bickle’s crusade to save a child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from a life of exploitation under her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) merge into each other smoothly.

Bickle is a disaffected Vietnam War veteran who takes up a job driving taxis at night to overcome his insomnia whose cause is never explained but can be guessed as a symptom of an undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder which could explain his honourable discharge from the US army. He is attracted to a political aide Betsi (Cybill Shepherd) who is working for the nomination and election of Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris) but after a couple of  dates, he takes her to see a mild porno film that offends her and she walks out of the cinema. After several unsuccessful attempts to contact Betsi, Bickle gives up and concludes she is no better than all the other people he sees in the streets. He comes across Iris looking for clients and decides she needs saving so he prepares himself for the deed by changing his life: he starts exercising and building up muscle, eating healthily, practising shooting and buying guns from a seedy dealer. He finally meets the girl through Sport and tries to convince her to leave her pimp but she hesitates. Finally Bickle takes it upon himself to rid Iris of Sport, his associates and some of her clients.

De Niro was born to play Bickle – he embodies the character’s contradictions: inarticulate and well-spoken; idealistic yet creepy and out of touch with the complex world he lives in and can’t understand; striving to be of worth and to have a good, moral purpose in life but frequenting seedy cinemas to watch porn films and implicitly approving when a passenger (Martin Scorsese in a cameo appearance) says he will murder his adulterous wife. Bickle has a narrow view of the world in which good and evil exist and there are no shades of grey between the two.  His ruminations and conversations with fellow cabbies, plus a scene where he is watching TV and another where he eyeballs a black man flaunting his wealth, suggest he is racist though one of the cabbies he hangs out with happens to be black. Bickle starts to see his purpose in life as cleaning his adopted home-town of the scum he sees on his nightly patrols. De Niro’s acting strikes a good balance between playing Bickle straight and over-acting: at one point in the film, in an inspired piece of scripting or directing (or both), he looks at the camera while rehearsing his fantasies and what he will say in them when he plays them for real, and any misgivings viewers might have about what he’s going to do are made to melt away.

The support cast is good without being remarkable but then it’s de Niro’s film all the way. Scorsese’s cameo as the jealous passenger brimming with rage at his wife’s infidelity and Keitel as the manipulative pimp make more impression on this viewer than Foster does. Foster seems a little too self-assured to play a runaway girl hesitant about leaving her pimp even though she wants to. Shepherd appears bland as Betsi but that’s the point: her wholesome blandness is mistaken by Bickle as angelic when he first sees her. Support characters including a co-worker of Betsi’s who’s keen on her but isn’t all that essential to the plot flesh out the world of “Taxi Driver”, giving the film a richer social tapestry than the plot requires.

The film probably could have been improved if Bickle had seen something in Palantine or in what the senator does that suggests he may be corrupt to justify Bickle’s assassination attempt. The film deliberately excludes any reference to Palantine’s political platform apart from the slogan “WE are the people …” which may be a weakness because there is nothing to pin him down on and demonstrate his  potential for venality. The happy ending plays as a parody of other happy endings in Hollywood dramas but some viewers will miss Bickle’s furtive look into his rearview mirror. This glance tells us that Bickle is still obsessed with his personal crusade of cleaning the “scum” out of the city and will strike hard again. Innocent people may die next time. The music could have been more ominous and repetitive than it is as the end credits start to scroll.

Would that Hollywood might once again make films about lonely people wanting to connect with society and the world but unable to do so because of their flawed, traumatised or disturbed pasts. Such folk end up being driven by forces they can’t understand and explain to themselves or to others, and by a society just as traumatised and lacking in hope and purpose as they, to commit deeds that by sheer chance turn them either into heroes or villains.

 

Stalker: immersive film of beauty and ugliness, self-doubt and renewal of faith

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Stalker” (1979)

For Western audiences used to fast action science fiction movies, “Stalker” is a very slow-paced post-apocalyptic mover with a barebones plot that symbolises humanity’s search for hope and faith. In a future world devastated by war, a man (Alexander Kaidanovsky) known only as the Stalker works as a guide taking people through a territory called the Zone in his country. The area is actually off-limits to the public and heavily guarded and fortified and both the Stalker and his wife (Alisa Freindlich) know his work is illegal – he has been imprisoned before. The reason for taking people through the Zone though is to reach an area called the Room where entrants will find their deepest wishes fulfilled. So the Stalker – we’ll call him S for convenience – continues doing his risky work in spite of the wife’s pleas and anger. At the film’s opening, S is preparing already to meet two new clients, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), at a bar. This part of the film unfolds slowly: the opening scenes, done in sepia tints, are much like early 1920’s expressionist silent films in their close focus on still objects in S’s room. The deliberate use of sepia and not colour calls attention to the drab, impoverished surroundings in which S’s family lives and S makes his living.

Entering the Zone is fairly quick if tricky – the trio must evade guards on motorcycle and in a Land Rover – and the men then ride an open railway carriage into the heart of the Zone. The landscape changes from bombed-out ruins and mud tracks to a lush and verdant paradise where abandoned buildings are scattered here and there. The filmstock changes from sepia tones to colour to emphasise the men’s crossing from reality to a place of non-reality. Normal laws of physics apparently don’t apply in the Zone and S advises his clients to follow him and do exactly as he says to avoid the invisible dangers that surround them. He tests routes through the Zone with metal nuts that he throws with slings. While they advance towards the Room, the men have philosophical discussions and reveal why they want to visit the Room. The Writer (W) needs new inspiration for his work and the Professor (P) wants to make a discovery that will win him a Nobel Prize. Sometimes in conversation S refers to his mentor, a previous stalker called Porcupine, who himself entered the Room, came into a lot of money and then hanged himself.

They walk through fields, go through a long dark tunnel and travel through a chamber called the “meat mincer” where long ago, Porcupine’s poet brother died. On reaching the entrance to the Room, P reveals his reason for coming is to blow up the Room with a bomb in his knapsack to stop the general public from hearing about it and clamouring to visit to fulfill their desires which more often than not might be base and selfish. W, who has been skeptical about the Zone and the Room for much of the journey, accuses S of exploiting people’s hopes and dreams.Quarrelling and fisticuffs follow during which the reason that Porcupine’s brother died in the mincer is revealed.

“Stalker” doesn’t seem much like a science fiction film at all though it is based on a novella written by two brothers, Boris and Arkay Strugatsky, who are famous in Russia for writing science fiction stories and novels, some of which have been adapted to film. In its early sepia-toned scenes, the film resembles a war movie with film noir elements inserted, thanks to the style of cinematography used which emphasises sharp contrasts of light and shadow to the extent that darkness may frame shots, and textures of walls, detritus on floors and scum in water are readily noticed. The camera often operates from behind a wall or a structure, peering into a scene where action is occurring. Scenes are very prolonged so as to draw viewers into the action, the mood and the atmosphere: an extended scene of rainfall through an open ceiling while the men sit on the floor just outside the Room conveys their indecision and perhaps a loss of belief and faith in themselves and what the Room may hold. When the camera moves, it often tracks slowly, forwards or backwards in the tunnel scenes; around actors close-up, showing off their haggard profiles; or upwards over objects and relics buried in mud or shallow putrid water. The film seems to meditate on a notion of a lost civilisation and religion whose knowledge and wisdom can never be brought back.

The men and their journey may be symbolic in themselves: W and P represent the artistic, creative aspect and the scientific, rational aspect of humanity while S represents the spirtual impulse and belief in faith that bridges creative imagination and down-to-earth investigation and materialism. The journey can be interpreted in different ways: it could be a journey from the conscious world – the one outside the Zone – into the subconscious, represented by the Zone. The invisible dangers in the Zone that force S and his clients to improvise their route through the tunnel and the mincer represent inner complexes such as phobias and repressed memories that prevent us from tapping into our subconscious for inspiration and purpose to life. P’s plan to bomb the Room might represent some individuals’ denial or desire to control what they see as their irrational impulses; the possibility that he may be working for the tyrannical government that rules his society might suggest that governments desire to control what people think and feel. W’s skepticism could reflect a loss of faith and belief in one’s abilities: at one point in the film he admits he hates writing and rants about the culture of criticism in society and how too often it seeks to pull down talented if eccentric people to the same level rather than judge and improve the quality and worth of their artistic output. The journey through the Zone might also be interpreted as a flight or escape from the struggle and pain of life: shallow ponds of water and mud in parts of the Zone have religious icons and syringes buried in them, showing the ways in which people try to cope with problems in their lives. Incidents throughout the journey which include P’s search for his knapsack containing the bomb suggest that W may be right about S: that S does manipulate people’s hopes and beliefs for personal gain and so in a sense S represents organised religion that manipulates people’s desire to come close to God through rituals and prayers that lose meaning over time. Or perhaps the Zone is simply a bridge between life and death and S is its psychopomps: an ominous black wolf-like dog appears in the Zone and befriends S. Maybe the Room itself is irrelevant and the journey through the Zone and what S’s clients get out of it is the important thing. Viewers are free to interpret what they see depending on where they are coming from in terms of life experience and knowledge.

Significantly S loses his faith in himself and in his life’s purpose but redemption is unexpectedly at hand in the form of his crippled child Monkey who, though deformed by the Zone’s influence, also displays an unusual psychokinetic talent. This suggests that what the Zone and Room represent can always be found around us or within us in spite of limitations we have and people don’t have to rely on external phenomena or travel to places to find creativity, inspiration or purpose in life. The Zone then doesn’t really exist as a physical phenomenon and in that form it is a figment of S’s imagination to give him a reason to live and to enable him to cope with the problems of daily life.

Actors Kaidanovsky, Solonitsyn and Grinko play their parts well: they are minimal in their movements, speech and actions but convey a wide range of emotions as they are forced to admit their real reasons for entering the Zone and wanting to enter the Room, and through their conversations and arguments discover, gain or lose something in themselves that radically changes their lives forever. The only piece of acting that’s overdone and irrelevant to the film is the frenzy S’s wife goes into when S leaves to meet W and P in the bar. This is one of a few flaws in the film; other flaws include the concept of the “mincer” which doesn’t come across on screen as very frightening or frightening enough that it could kill someone. The music by Edward Artemev is a bit of a mishmash of orchestral music, some ambient and strings influenced by Russian and Middle Eastern music styles and for a movie like “Stalker”, really needs its own identity. The suggestion that religious belief must underpin creative and scientific endeavour may be too facile given that S is revealed as a flawed priest or prophet conducting a pointless ritual.

At times depressing and uplifting, ugly and beautiful, this film is worth watching at least once and preferably a few times to immerse oneself in its atmosphere and scenes of post-industrial decay and of nature reasserting itself among dilapidated factory buildings and tunnels still filled with pools of polluted water and spilt chemical toxins. Tragically several people associated with “Stalker”, including Tarkovsky himself and Solonitsyn, died of cancer-related conditions which may have been caused in part by exposure to pollutants in the places where the film was made.

Pilot Pirx’s Inquest: thoughtful low-budget sci-fi film about how humans and other intelligent beings can co-exist

Marek Pestrak, “Pilot Pirx’s Inquest” / “Test Pilota Pirxa” / “Doznanie Pilota Pirksa” (1979)

A joint Polish-Estonian production, this low-budget movie about a space trip that nearly ends in tragedy examines the theme of how humans and human-like robots might co-exist if the robots, made to serve humans, realised they were superior to their masters in some ways. A corporation that manufactures intelligent androids is keen to begin mass production but meets resistance from the public and governments. It is proposed that a small crew of humans and androids be sent on a mission to place two probes in the rings of Saturn: a simple enough job but the purpose of the mission is to observe the behaviours and interactions between the humans and robots. Commander Pirx (Sergei Desnitski) is selected to head the mission. He refuses at first but changes his mind and accepts the role after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt. During the mission, some members of the crew including crew physician Tom Novak (Alexander Kaidanovski) confide in him and reveal their identities as either human or robot and insinuate that other members may not be human. Pirx isn’t sure who’s telling the truth and starts feeling a little paranoid about what’s happening around him on the ship Goliath. Still he’s determined to find out who is human and who is not, figuring that knowing who is which is critical to the mission’s success. In the meantime a rogue member of the crew carries out small acts of sabotage on the ship and sends Pirx a recorded warning and threat which Pirx plays. When it’s time to insert the probes, the Goliath goes wildly off course through the ring belt, the ship is forced to accelerate suddenly and the humans on board face death from being turned into schnitzels from the incredible G-forces the Goliath encounters.

The special effects are uneven and often elementary to the extent of appearing cartoonish but they are adequate for the purposes of the film which gives the impression of being “hard science fiction” with its emphasis on scientific realism. There are just enough effects to make the society credible as scientifically and technologically advanced and at the same time a society we can recognise as ours. It’s as if the movie takes place in an alternate 1970s where the spending priorities of governments and corporations were different enough that some areas of robotics and cybernetics developed faster than they did in our 197os, and so the parallel Earth got androids and we didn’t. The world in “Test Pilota Pirxa” otherwise looks no different than what ours looked like over thirty years ago and the film itself now appears as a fictional historical drama.

The acting is low-key and straight with Desnitski dominating the bulk of the movie’s scenes. He underplays his role as do all the other actors in a film heavy with dialogue whose sole purpose is to push the plot and explore the human-versus-robot theme. As Novak who reveals his robot identity early on, Kaidanovski impresses in a minimalist, subdued way as a being who understands little of human nature and its ways yet is keen to help Desnitski. Interestingly his character and another robot voice their hope that Desnitski’s opinion of robots will be negative so that their makers can’t go ahead with mass production, otherwise the robots that already exist will lose their individual identities and won’t be able to exult in their special abilities which help form those identities. No point in being an Übermensch if you have so many millions of clones like you who can do the same things you can do; you would just feel like … well, you would just feel like yet another machine-cog in a vast network of machine-cogs.

The music soundtrack by famous Estonian holy minimalist composer Arvo Part is not impressive: it’s a mix of conventional orchestral formal compositional music, spider-like organ music that almost sounds a little electronic and some near-futuristic percussion rhythms and beats.

The plot’s resolution suggests that co-existence between humans and robots will always be ambivalent. Trying to second-guess what robots might be thinking and why they might do certain things and not others will be a major human preoccupation. As long as human and robot natures are kept separate with humans allowed to be irrational and robots restricted to acting logically and rationally, humans will always be able to control robots. Not a very satisfactory conclusion to reach; how human and robot natures will remain separate is never explained. The relationship between humans and technology already is a dynamic one in which technological advances and breakthroughs force us to change and re-evaluate our reliance and dependence on machines constantly so the same would be expected of human and android interactions.

The film can be slow and doesn’t really start until halfway through once the Goliath blasts off. The early half of “Test Pilota Pirxa” plays a little like a straight spy thriller. Once we’re in space and Desnitski begins questioning the crew, the paranoia and the tension start to increase. The climax isn’t especially dramatic and no, it doesn’t actually come when the rogue member’s identity is revealed and he meets a just punishment – it comes much later after Pirx’s court case, in which he is prosecuted for having endangered his crew during the mission, ends.

As is, “Test Pilota Pirxa” could have done better in its investigation of human-android interaction and whether humans and androids can live together amicably. It takes for granted that robots will always be logical and there will be large-scale human resistance towards them; this attitude wouldn’t necessarily exist in real life. Much depends on what the robots are designed to do and how generalised or specialised we humans want them to be. At least the film treats its audiences as intelligent and able to consider its concepts. The ambiguous conclusion suggests a reluctance on the film-makers’ part to commit to a definite opinion as to whether co-existence is possible and if so, can be successful; what could be implied instead is a plea for tolerance and a “live and let live” attitude.

 

Ashik Kerib: flat plot and hammy acting wreck ethnographic survey / travelogue of Azerbaijani culture

Sergei Parajanov and David Abashidze, “Ashik Kerib” (1988)

The last completed film by Georgian / Armenian director Sergei Parajanov before his death in 1990, “Ashik Kerib” is a sumptuous survey of the culture of Azerbaijan as it was from the 1500’s to the early 20th century. The film takes the form of a retelling of Russian author Mikhail Lermontov’s short story of the same name (which in Azeri and Turkish means “Unfortunate Lover”) and is performed as a children’s fairy-tale. Two young lovers, the minstrel Ashik and a rich trader’s daughter Magul-Megeri, pledge their love and wish to marry; unfortunately the girl’s father, greedy for a huge bride price, prevents the marriage from going ahead unless Ashik can cough up the wealth required in 1,001 days. During this period, Ashik has many adventures in faraway lands and undergoes one trial after another as he tries to raise the money. If he doesn’t get back in time with the bride price, Magul-Megeri’s mean old man will marry her off to the equally odious Kurshudbek. Can Ashik raise the money and return home in time to claim his love?

As with Parajanov’s previous films like “The Color of Pomegranates” and “The Legend of Suram Fortress”, the film’s presentation is rich and layered with many shots of still life (a jug on a rock against a mountain waterfall, Persian-style miniaturist portrait paintings, displays of jugs, cups and musical instruments) that demonstrate what everyday life was like for Azeri people or the rich and middle-class among them at least. Scenes are filmed at some distance from the actors to show off their cultural context which helps to explain why they think and behave the way they do; there are very few close-ups and many of those are head-and-shoulder shots. The effect is one of a series of moving dioramas which suit the episodic nature of the plot, broken up into many short chapters each revolving around one incident. Dialogue is minimal and serves mainly to advance the story. The musical soundtrack is nearly continuous throughout the movie and doesn’t match the action closely so some viewers may find the wailing singing annoying and shrill.

There are many outdoor scenes which give the impression of Azerbaijan as a semi-arid grassy country where horses and Bactrian camels seem to be the main animals used for transport. Urban life takes place in small towns or large villages of old stone buildings.

Aimed at children, the film often features histrionic acting by villains or those who threaten Ashik in some way. Villains are readily identified by their lurid make-up and hammy, buffoonish actions. The two lead roles are passive and make little effort to overcome the obstacles that separate them: things happen to Ashik and he suffers and despairs a great deal but the plot’s convolutions give him no opportunity to try to improve his fortunes. This is where the film founders: if it’s a fairy-tale, surely Magul-Megeri and Ashik should have some direct or indirect access to magic so they could help each other? Magul-Megeri could find a wise woman or magician to send a helpful dove to guide Ashik and keep him out of trouble, and that dove could convey communications between the two to keep each other’s spirits up and hold Kurshudbek at bay. The film already deviates from the original short story as it is: if Parajanov and Abashidze had followed it closely, the plot would end up as a remake of one of Parajanov’s other films in which a Romeo leaves his love to pursue fortune and ends up wealthy but forgets to return home and marry the girl pining for him.

As it is, the plot and Ashik wander from one struggle to another until time runs out and something has to be done to get Ashik back home. There’s very little sense of the wonder and enchantment that should have accompanied this otherwise interesting ethnographic survey of Azeri culture. Usually with films in which a hero must endure trials and tests of character in a fairy-tale narrative, the main character is seen to change into a nobler person and proves a worthy marriage partner. This doesn’t happen with “Ashik Kerib” and so in spite of the beautiful visual work and the good-looking lead actors, the film becomes just an exotic moving travelogue with some interesting still-life scenes but little else to hold the audience’s attention.

The Third Man: excellent character study of people coping with a changed world where old certainties are subverted

Carol Reed, “The Third Man” (1949)

Here’s an excellent movie character study about the testing of loyalties and trust in a world that’s just come out of a long war where such notions as brotherhood, friendship, doing what you believe is right and the ethical concerns that might arise from personal action are subverted and corrupted, and people end up living and surviving for selfish reasons alone. An unemployed American writer, down on his luck and burnt-out from writing too many trite Western horse-opera stories, comes to Vienna at the invitation of a friend just after the end of World War II. Already the city has been partitioned into four zones by the victorious Allied powers which are now squabbling among themselves. The writer, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), goes to meet his friend at his apartment only to be told by the porter (Peter Horbiger) that he has just seen the friend, Harry Lime, die in a road accident. Martins attends Lime’s funeral where he meets two British Army police officers Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee) and Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). The writer is contacted by Lime’s friends who had picked him up after the road accident. As time goes by, Martins is struck by the differences in the stories the porter and Lime’s friends and doctor tell him about Lime’s accident – in particular, the discrepancy between the number of men who attended Lime at the accident scene – and determines to find out how Lime really died and if his death had been an accident.

While investigating Lime’s disappearance, Martins meets an actress, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), whom Lime had helped escape from Czechoslovakia with forged papers, and develops feelings for her. He learns from Calloway about Lime’s trafficking of diluted penicillin on the black market and how this has created a public health catastrophe for Viennese children. Martins decides to leave Vienna but then catches a glimpse of Lime (Orson Welles) who has been living in Vienna’s underground sewer network. Martins reports Lime’s exstence to Calloway who then orders the man’s grave to be exhumed; the men discover another body in Lime’s coffin. Russian police officers come for Anna to take her back to Czechoslovakia and Martins tries to negotiate safe passage for her in return for helping Calloway catch Lime.

The plot is fairly straightforward though second and viewings may be necessary to understand all its details. There are no hackneyed twists to manipulate suspense and tension into a rollercoaster ride and the dilemma that Martins faces in doing what is right and ethical at the cost of betraying a friend and losing a loved person supplies the bulk of the tension in the film’s second half. All the action and thrills occur in the prolonged (maybe too prolonged) chase scene in the city’s sewer system. Joseph Cotten deftly underplays the would-be hero who hardly understands what he gets himself into and is out of his depth coping with life in Vienna; he achieves a good if difficult balance of making Martins look capable when he isn’t without making the character look too bumbling. Viewers see how Martins came to be in the situation that he finds himself at the beginning of the film: he can only write trashy fiction because he lacks self-knowledge and understanding of human psychology, and is basically superficial and ignorant.The baby-faced Welles plays his dubious Harry Lime role very well indeed: initially he seems callous in his dismissal of the children’s deaths caused by his black market activities in his “cuckoo clock” speech that compares the cultures and histories of Italy and Switzerland but one might consider his motives which may be selfish, altruistic or both in stealing a wonder medicine from military hospitals and selling it to hospitals desperately needing it to treat children, and in assisting Anna and maybe others like her flee Communist rule. He delivers the film’s best acting performance in his lone scene where he is trapped on a staircase; weakened by a gunshot wound, the strain showing on his face, he makes desperate efforts to escape the police and Martins homing in on him. Valli plays the basically passive Anna subtly and gives the impression of a complex woman who has moral depth but can also be naive about human nature. Mention also should be made of Howard as Calloway: he plays his part straight but turns out to be as much a master manipulator of Martins as Lime himself.

Taking Martins’s point of view, the cinematography by Robert Krasker emphasises many shots taken at crazy angles to reflect the man’s bewilderment and failure to connect with and appreciate the world he has just flown into. Vienna itself becomes a significant character with otherwise purely historic and harmless buildings made to look sinister and menacing due to camera placements and streets at night denuded of traffic and pedestrians so as to resemble an American Wild West ghost-town of Martins’s imaginings, where stand-offs and shoot-outs could occur. Some scenes are filmed at a considerable distance to emphasise some aspect of the plot or the relationship between characters: the film’s closing scene in which Anna walks past Martins contemptuously is filmed at a distance from them both to show Martins’s alienation in a world he has failed to understand and which now rejects him.

The musical soundtrack by Anton Karras, composed almost entirely on zither, has a Western flavour that comments ironically on the film’s setting in post-WW2 Vienna, on the edge between the capitalist West and the Communist East, a place of promise and opportunity but also a hive of vice and corruption, just as towns springing up across the American West in the 1800s as a result of mining and farming booms could either be successful cities or abandoned ghost-towns. The sharp, vigorous melodies don’t behave as a musical soundtrack should do, accentuating tension where needed and bringing it down: instead, the music can be abrupt and intrusive to the point of being annoying. The purpose is to encourage viewers to “see” the events as Martins might be seeing them through a familiar mental framework that allows him to participate in them. The possibility that he might end up wrecking his life and the lives of others doesn’t occur to him.

By film’s end though viewers have no sense that Martins has really learned anything from his experience: he appears to want to resume a relationship with Anna and seems genuinely puzzled when she ignores him. The reasons she rejects him are many and could include resentment at being used as bait or anger that someone she loved, however flawed he was, is gone. Although the film is very much of its time and deals with issues springing from a particular historical event, its enquiry into misplaced loyalties and betrayal, and how people cope with changed circumstances in which good becomes bad and bad becomes good, remains relevant to modern audiences in a world where the political and economic order established by the United States in the immediate aftermath of World War II has been breaking down for a long time and might now be in its death throes.

Viy: Gothic fairy-tale horror film of Cossacks and seminarians threatened by witches, vampires and demons

Georgiy Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov, “Viy” (1967)

A rare 1960s Soviet film in the horror genre, “Viy” is more Gothic fairy tale than a straight horror film, due to its close adaptation of the original short story by 19th-century Ukrainian / Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Yet the film itself has the look of many horror movies made in the West at the same time with lots of colour, some excellent photography and a staged look to the sets. What makes this movie different from contemporary horror films is that the story is steeped in the culture of the people and time from whom and which Gogol was inspired to write his story. The setting is in rural Ukraine some time in the 1300’s or 1400’s when Slavic-speaking people settled in the eastern and southern parts and inherited customs and folkways from people already living there that became the basis for Cossack culture. An Orthodox seminary breaks up for holidays and the students walk to their homes: three of them decide to take a short-cut across some fields but get lost. One student, Khoma (Leonid Kravulyov), stays at a farmhouse and meets an old witch there who tries to ride him like a horse; he beats her severely and runs away home. Later he is contacted by his seminary to be told that he must say prayers for a Cossack chieftain’s dying daughter (Natalia Varley). He is forced to travel to the village where the chieftain and his family live and discovers to his dismay that the girl is not only now dead but may be the incarnation of the old witch. The chieftain compels Khoma to stay in the village and say prayers for three nights for the girl who specifically requested the young man’s presence before her death. During his stay, Khoma gets drunk, acts stupid and tries to escape but the chieftain and his servants make sure that every night for three nights running Khoma is in the dilapidated church next to the young woman’s bier reading and chanting prayers.

The first half of the film builds up steadily to the moment when Khoma’s three-night ordeal begins; there isn’t much to attract people looking only for horror but for parents and children watching together, the scenes of past peasant and religious life in a faraway country will be of interest. The character of Khoma is clearly established: he’s young and not particularly devout, and he likes to drink and have a good time with the other seminary students. By the time he starts his nightwatch, viewers already have a clue his faith in God is shaky and there’s a good chance he won’t last the three nights. The villagers look up to him and call him “philosopher”, the chieftain is more suspicious of him but insists on his presence as the daughter had asked for him by name. The teachers at the seminary treat him as a bit of a fool. Apart from Khoma, everyone else plays support but the film is all about a test of one fallible man’s character and faith when surrounded by evil. Kravulyov perhaps looks too healthy and robust to play a fragile, naive youth but his portrayal of Khoma as perhaps not too bright and very out of his depth in the real world away from the shelter of the seminary is very good.

And what evil there is, in the second half of the film – the special effects might not be great by the standards of horror films made outside the Soviet Union and eastern Europe in the 1960s but they’re adequate for “Viy”: the girl’s coffin flies through the air in circles, giant hands emerge from the walls and floors and deformed creatures literally crawl out of the woodwork to menace Khoma. They cannot breach the circle of chalk he has drawn around himself so they call for Viy, the biggest and most evil demon of all, to break through the magic protection sustained by Khoma’s rapidly fading courage and confidence. Some of the acting probably needs to be more overdone, the demon make-up and costuming are at once hokey and scary, and Viy does look like a laughable carnival freak but the demon attack on Khoma is truly frightening though not at all gory. The animated skeletons and a close-up of a cute bristling monster weasel are major highlights. The filming method used in the horror scenes is outstanding with the camera continuously circling around Khoma or the flying coffin to create a sensation of delirious fear, dizziness and helplessness.

Apart from the use of special effects and the constantly rotating camera during the nightwatch scenes, the cinematography isn’t very remarkable though it does show the colour and flavour of rural Ukrainian life of several hundred years ago very well. The aerial riding scene is good with aerial photographs of lakes and forests whizzing by in the background behind the witch and Khoma to suggest the couple’s speedy flight. The music soundtrack by Karin Khachaturyan is notable with very screechy violin strings in parts and softer, more bell-like tones in other parts.

Viewers will note a sexual subtext to the story: the witch’s ride can be read as a metaphor for seduction or rape and the chieftain himself suspects Khoma of having had sexual relations with his daughter. He knows Khoma is poor and tempts him with the promise of a thousand gold coins in payment if the young man can sit through the three nights with the girl’s corpse so the night-watch is as much a test of his self-control and honesty as it is a test of his religious faith. Perhaps if the film-makers had deviated from the original short story during the horror scenes and allowed the witch to try to seduce Khoma and tempt him with pleasure mixed with terror, the film might have become an artistic work in its own right that appeals to all audiences and not simply a retelling of a story with fairy-tale elements.

There aren’t many horror films that mix horror with dark fantasy, folk-tale elements and an examination of human nature and superstitious cultures, and put them all in a world that’s at once ordinary yet fantastic enough that witches, vampires, demons and werewolves can live there and “Viy” remains a good example of what’s possible with that kind of fusion.

5 Days of War: as the movie admits, truth is the first casualty

Renny Harlin, “5 Days of War” aka “5 Days of August” (2011)

Directed by Renny Harlin and financed by the Georgian government, this drama is a Russian-bashing screed about the 2008 South Ossetia war and the events leading to it. The movie revolves around the experiences of two news reporters Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend) and Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle) who accept an assignment in Tbilisi, Georgia, a year after their previous assignment together in Iraq ended badly: the two men were rescued by a Georgian military unit in that country after their car was ambushed  by militants. In that ambush, Anders’s girlfriend (Heather Graham), also a reporter, is badly wounded and dies. Anders and Ganz’s noses for news (and trouble) get them fired upon while watching a wedding at a rural Georgian inn, avoiding capture while witnessing and filming atrocities by Russian troops who have invaded the country, and ending up as prisoners of a Russian general (Rade Serbedzija). While simultaneously escaping, yet being drawn to, trouble and danger, the reporters pick up a Georgian woman, Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a guest at the wedding at the inn. Through Tatia and a collective effort to broadcast Ganz’s images to the rest of the world while keeping them away from the Russians, Anders finds a new purpose in life and a reason to go on living.

The romance between Anders and Tatia doesn’t make sense: why should the two fall in love simply because chance threw them together and put them in danger both together and individually? Any “chemistry” that might exist isn’t present and the pair’s kiss looks like an after-thought. More believable is Anders’s loyalty to Ganz when Ganz is injured in a bomb attack and apparently dying: the two have been in many intense life-and-death situations which few other people can understand and sympathise with. Both men are devoted to seeking the truth behind layers of propagandistic fog though paradoxically this search can make them vulnerable to manipulation by politicians and the military. The plot’s emphasis on safeguarding the memory stick that holds Ganz’s images and the Russians’ attempt to destroy it leaves no room for character development with the result that Anders, Ganz and their fellow journalists are cardboard cut-out beings not worth caring about.  The actors playing Russians end up perpetuating old World War II stereotypes about Soviet soldiers massacring civilians, raping women and torching farms and crops with flame-throwers. Admittedly the stereotypes are based on fact – the Soviet Red Army behaved abominably wherever it went – partly because of the debased culture that developed in the army as a result of purges of high-ranking officers ordered in the 1930s by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, a native Georgian. What irony. As the movie carries on, hackneyed plot twists appear: Tatia’s family is riven apart by internal betrayal, Ganz is threatened with torture by the Russian general’s sadistic enforcer (Nikko Mousiainen), an attempt to broadcast Ganz’s images fails when the reporters are targeted by a Russian helicopter, and Ganz is hurt in the helicopter attack. The enforcer kidnaps Tatia and forces Anders to choose between saving her life and keeping Ganz’s film.

The film could have focussed on the dilemmas that journalists in war zones face: for one thing, whether the search for truth justifies putting their own lives and the lives of innocents in danger. There are various political and ethical decisions they have to make: how closely should they work with the government or the military? how would such work interfere with their journalist code of ethics? There is a female journalist featured who is embedded with a Georgian army unit and viewers may well wonder what compromises she made to get the story and pictures she wants; it’s likely also the opinions she expresses and the images she shows will reflect her hosts’ political agenda.

The actors do what they can with the story and give at least a three-dimensional look to their characters. Andy Garcia as Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili gives the best performance, endowing his character with a dignity the real person doesn’t deserve: before the 2008 war, Saakashvili had been criticised for the use of brutal police force against protesters in an anti-government demonstration, and for declaring a state of emergency and suppressing press freedoms as a result of the protests, in November 2007. Well-known US actors Val Kilmer and Dean Cain parrot their lines and strut their respective reporter and diplomat role stereotypes, and fellow US actor Jonathan Schaek as Georgian military officer Captain Avaliani spends his screen time saving Anders and Ganz’s hides.

If the film has any saving graces, they’re in the Georgian settings: the cinematography features lovely shots of a town perched on cliffs overlooking a winding river and of the countryside with its mountains and deep gorges. A church used as a refuge gives the film crew opportunities to photograph pictures of religious icons and the wedding scene featured early in the movie gives a little insight into Georgian customs, traditional dress styles and folk dances. Curiously though native Georgians serve as extras, they are absent from the film’s lead and supporting acting roles.

By lapsing into an action-movie rut the film fails to give a near-accurate portrayal of the work news journalists do and the problems they face in unusual and intense situations where disinformation, propaganda and fear replace speech and press freedoms. The film fails to do what it purports to do: the source of the film’s financing alone puts paid to any pretence of impartiality and regard for truth. The Georgian armed forces are portrayed as decent and heroic, the Russians as cruel, barbarous and criminal: in truth, both sides were guilty of over-reaction to provocation with Georgia attacking South Ossetia first with heavy firepower and both Georgians and Russians alike committing grave war crimes. The United States doesn’t come out looking good either: since 2003, the Americans have been sending arms and military advisors to Georgia and encouraging Saakashvili to adopt a very aggressive attitude towards Russia as part of an encirclement strategy that includes ex-Soviet states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (where the US has a military base) in Central Asia, Ukraine and some former Soviet satellite nations in eastern Europe.

 

 

 

Amphibian Man: hodge-podge of science fiction fantasy, action, doomed teen romance and anti-capitalist commentary

Vladimir Chebotaryov and Gennady Kazansky, “Chelovek-Amfibiya” aka “Amphibian Man” (1962)

An unusual science fiction / fantasy / romance of a doomed love affair combined with a love triangle and a bit of clumsy anti-capitalist commentary, this film was a hit with Soviet audiences in the early 1960s on first release. It still looks good for its age half a century later: the very faux-Mexican setting looks quaintly historic as though the events of the film took place in a peri0d much earlier than 1962 when it was filmed. The cinematography is very good with a number of shots throughout the movie taken at unusual angles or from characters’ points of view and there is an emphasis on displaying underwater scenes as bright-blue, beautiful and benign even when there is a shark lurking about. The young lead actors are stunning to look at and the camera often focusses on their beautiful features: even the villain is extraordinarily handsome in a moody way. The acting is at least natural if not particularly outstanding and even a bit wooden and amateurish.

All characters are very much stock stereotypes and the actors deviate little from those stereotypes. Medical scientist Dr Salvatore (Nikolai Simonov), the idealistic “mad scientist” of the piece, has a son who once suffered an incurable lung disease so the father implanted gills in the child’s body somewhere to save his life. The boy Ichtyander, the “monster” naif, is able to breathe and live underwater as well as on land but the father keeps him isolated from other people as he has a vague plan for the boy to found and lead an oceanic republic free of class and other social divisions and exploitation. In the movie Ichtyander (Vladimir Korenev) is a teenager and he falls in love with a girl Gutiere (Anastasia Vertinskaya) after rescuing her from a shark attack; he desires to follow and be with her, and he leaves his water-world to go to the city where she lives. Unfortunately Gutiere’s father, the pearl-diver Baltazar (Anatoly Smiranin), is heavily in debt and has promised the girl’s hand in marriage to local rich playboy Pedro Zurita (Mikhail Kozakov) who has promised to pay the old man’s debts but has other thoughts in mind about how he’ll use Baltazar’s ship and pearl-diver crew to enrich himself.

The plot is a hodge-podge of action, romance and sci-fi fantasy; easy enough to follow but with gaping holes that make it shaky in parts. It seems over-eager to advance to the climax to the extent that characters must have in-built GPS systems in their brains to find significant people. There are elements of comedy and musicals here and there. The busy pace and the plot’s complications don’t permit much character development which is unfortunate because Ichtyander’s infatuation with Gutiere leads him out of his isolation and his father’s control and forces him to confront the best and worst of human behaviour and social interactions. Young viewers might identify with Ichtyander’s confusion at adult ways of behaving and doing things. There is a point made about how money divides people into social classes and how society judges people on the basis of their wealth or poverty. By the end of the film Ichtyander still seems very child-like and his future without his father is uncertain. Other characters who also need to escape from their one-dimensional plane of existence include Gutiere, who could have railed against a system that forces her to marry because of economic necessity, and Baltazar, who is not shown in the movie to have a guilty conscience over horse-trading Gutiere: he must have had one though because (spoiler alert) he ends up saving Gutiere from a lifetime of misery with Pedro. A support character Olsen (Vladlen Davydov) is very under-used as a potential aid and mentor to Ichtyander.

Criticism of capitalism comes in the person of Pedro who desires to exploit Ichtyander’s fishing and diving skills and later tries to convince Dr Salvatore to mass-produce thousands of Ichtyanders for profit, demonstrating that the evil entrepreneurial and exploitive capitalist mindset is always on permanent autopilot in the brains of stock villains. By contrast, Dr Salvatore’s desire for an egalitarian socialist underwater utopia is demonstrated as unrealistic in the context of an impoverished Latin American country where corruption, or what the viewer sees of it, is rife. Everyone in this country seems to be in debt and people constantly haggle for more money: Gutiere gives her necklace to Olsen so he can pawn it for money to keep his newspaper business going and Baltazar is desperate enough to sell off Gutiere to keep his pearl-diving business above water.

A highlight of the film is Andrei Petrov’s musical soundtrack which includes the use of electronic instruments as well as conventional orchestral music and some Spanish-influenced flourishes. Dramatic sweeps of violins and other strings mix with beautiful bell-like tones and some odd, spacey tunes. A couple of songs appear early in the film as though the directors had ambitions for it to be a musical before realising the idea wouldn’t mesh too well with a plot filled with twists.

A chase scene, a kidnap scene and an escape-from-jail scene complete with gunshots enliven the plot which concludes in freedom but not happiness ever after or a better understanding of the corrupt world around them for the young would-be lovers. Overall “Amphibian Man” is a visually striking film with beautifully shot locations that are picturesque and quaint, and which features good-looking young actors who run and swim around a lot. The premise and the plot are interesting though at times the directors seemed unsure whether they were making a musical, a comedy or an action film: the film dithers in one genre, then another before settling into the action genre. The film could have been much stronger with better characterisation and fewer twists in the plot but it was made for general public viewing after all.

Rashomon: still a timely investigation into human nature and its need for approval, and how truth is lost

Akira Kurosawa, “Rashomon” (1950)

For this film, director Kurosawa used a blend of two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, “Rashomon” and “In a Grove”, the latter of the two providing the actual plot and characters. The film is an investigation in the nature of truth as interpreted by fallible and unreliable eyewitnesses and the extent to which faith in human nature depends on people’s ability or wish to report objective truth. While sheltering from heavy rain in Rashomon temple, a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) tell a peasant (Kichijiro Ueda) about a disturbing murder they came across on their travels separately. The priest and woodcutter mention having to attend the murder trial where they hear three different versions of how the murder occurred from the murderer himself, the bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), the murder victim’s wife (Machiko Kyo) and the murder victim himself (Masayuki Mori) through a medium. After the trial, the woodcutter tells his version of what he saw of Tajomaru’s rape of the victim’s wife and the subsequent fight between the bandit and the victim.

Each version of the incident highlights the selfishness of the teller: Tajomaru relays the fight between himself and the victim as more noble than the woodcutter’s version in which the two men scrabble in the dirt and Tajomaru manages to kill the other man through luck more than skill; the wife plays pitiful and pathetic while she recounts her version in which she was spurned by her husband as a result of being raped against her will; the husband paints his wife as being wilful and demanding that Tajomaru kill her husband after raping her. The woodcutter’s version of the story undercuts all three versions: the wife is portrayed as manipulative, forcing two spineless men to fight over her.

The priest’s faith in the goodness of humans is shattered, especially after an incident at Rashomon temple in which the woodcutter and peasant find an abandoned baby wrapped in a kimono with an amulet attached. The woodcutter chastises the peasant for stealing the kimono and the amulet from the baby and the peasant accuses the woodcutter of stealing a dagger at the murder scene to sell later. The woodcutter falls silent – this suggests that the peasant is correct – and the other man leaves Rashomon temple, saying that all humans are motivated purely by selfishness and looking out for number one.

It’s not important as to which version of the story is correct: most reviews take for granted that the woodcutter’s version is the correct version despite the fact that he stole the dagger (and so messed with the crime scene) and failed to testify at the trial out of fear for his own life (so he was selfish, just as the peasant deduced). Even his story about having six children to feed may be a well-rehearsed lie to get the naive priest to believe him. What’s most important is how slippery eyewitnesses’ accounts of an incident may be, how these depend on the narrators’ characters and what they hope to gain out of telling their stories the way they do, and what is revealed about human psychology as a result. Self-interest and bolstering one’s reputation or identity are paramount whenever people tell their version of something in which they had some involvement. In the end, no-one emerges with any credit, least of all the priest whose faith in the goodness of people, cut down by several lies, is restored paradoxically by a tale that may yet be another lie. This might hint that objective truth is not always a desirable state; for human life to progress to a more morally enlightened level, some lies are necessary to maintain faith and goodwill.

Acting performances by Mifune and Kyo are excellent: in each version of the rape / murder incident, they become completely different characters. Mifune displays a raw animalistic exuberance as Tajomaru, alternately a clown, a coward, a man with some notion of honour, a suitor. Kyo has an even greater range of characterisation as the wife: she may appear demure in one scene, sexually ravenous in another; weak and pleading in one retelling, sly and scheming in another.

Kurosawa’s direction is another asset of the film: quick editing and jumping from the woodcutter to Tajomaru and back before the plot settles into Tajomaru’s version proper establishes that getting the definitive version of the truth will be very difficult and slippery. The weather plays an important role in the film: for most of the film’s running time while the priest, woodcutter and passer-by are discussing the incident and trial, rain is belting down on the temple; it’s only near the end that rain stops and the sun begins to shine as the woodcutter leaves the temple with the baby. This would seem to give the director’s stamp of approval on the woodcutter’s version of the story though the expression on the man’s face is ambiguous enough as to suggest that he has duped the priest. The wooded setting where the rape and swordfight play out hides as much as it reveals and is an important participant in the events that occur: in a couple of retellings, the wife runs off and Tajomaru can’t find her among the bushes and trees so he gives up the chase. In this way the forest can be said to play an active role in the various narratvies and it’s possible that if some narrators were standing or moving in different parts of the forest, their stories would have been different again.

The straightforward presentation of “Rashomon” masks a highly complex psychological study of fallible human beings and their desire to be seen in a good light by others, and how this affects the search for truth. Film techniques, settings and acting performances all combine to create a highly self-contained universe that questions the nature of truth and with it notions of honour and reputation. After 60 years the message is still relevant to a contemporary audience.