Screen veteran Sharif and newcomer Boulanger team up in easy-going “Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran”

François Dupeyron, “Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran” (2003)

This is an easy-going coming-of-age story based on a novel of the same name set in Paris in the early 1960’s. The material is lightweight and familiar – wayward youngster taken in hand by a kindly adult who teaches him about life and living – but is given gravity and warmth by lead actor Omar Sharif who plays Ibrahim Demirdji, the Turkish shop-owner who befriends a lonely Jewish teenager Momo (Pierre Boulanger) and eventually adopts him as his son. The movie divides into two roughly equal halves, one half focussing on the slow disintegration of Momo’s family and early life, and the other half being a one-way road movie.

At the start Momo lives with his father (Gilbert Melki) who seems depressed, cares little for his son’s well-being and treats the boy as house-keeper and cook in their working-class apartment on the Rue Bleue. During the day, the boy hangs out with the local kids who keep him updated with the latest songs and dances. Local prostitutes provide him with his first sexual encounters and some emotional comfort. He shops for food and household supplies at Demirdji’s general grocery store across the road and over time the elderly man guesses that the boy needs some psychological and spiritual guidance and direction, and starts providing it. He encourages Momo to see religion not as a set of rules and rituals but as a personal faith and philosophy to guide a person in life. While Momo and Ibrahim draw closer in their daily encounters, the father becomes more distant from the son and buries himself in work. In spite of this, he ends up being sacked and decides to leave his son to fend for himself. Momo copes well on his own at first but then receives news that his father has committed suicide. Demirdji then adopts Momo and sets about educating him in life and experiences: he buys a snazzy red car, takes driving lessons and plans a trip through Europe to Turkey. The two then set off and whiz quickly through the continent and reach Istanbul. After enjoying the sights and learning about the city’s culture, Momo accompanies Demirdji on his trip deeper into the Anatolian rural heartland.

One aspect of this film is issues that appear are never revealed in their entirety. We learn early on that Momo’s mother left the family many years ago but no-one knows why. Later when she appears after the father’s suicide, she fails to recognise Momo (he pretends to be someone else and she falls for the ploy) and tells him he never had an older brother called Popol. What effect this has on Momo – because his father used “Popol” as a stick to beat his son psychologically – and on his opinion of his father, we never learn because for one thing the mother then disappears from Momo’s life, perhaps forever. We also never discover what Demirdji is driving towards – there’s an unfortunate accident – or what he had in mind when he decided to take Momo on the car trip. There’s the possibility that he wished to take Momo through Turkey to Iran (Persia) as early on in the movie, he tells Momo that he is not Arab but comes from “the Golden Crescent” (a region stretching from Anatolia to Persia inclusive) and that at film’s end, Momo’s “education” still has a long way to go and is something he must complete himself. Disappointingly the film’s conclusion looks very much a cop-out and suggests that Momo’s self-realisation will be a repetitive self-referential loop.

It’s basically a sleepwalk for Sharif with regard to acting effort: the most he does is beam a lot and pretend to make a fuss in front of a car dealer. Boulanger’s equally minimal acting seems appropriate for a teenage boy who has grown up emotionally distant from both parents and is understandably wary of friendly strangers. Both actors complement each other well in their scenes together and though mawkishness does creep in, still you can’t help feeling a bit sad when eventually Demirdji must leave Momo and Momo finds himself all alone again. Isabelle Adjani turns up in a brief cameo playing Brigitte Bardot filming a scene for a movie (Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt” which was made in 1963) and later visiting Demirdji’s grocery store.

The film makes a better shot of showing how two people of different generations, religion and social background can find a connection, than it does of Momo’s transformation from a bewildered, emotionally lost child estranged from his religion as well as his family to someone with more self-knowledge and awareness who is able to pass wisdom onto other troubled kids. The film does try to suggest commonalities between two religions (the two main characters are named after revered prophets Abraham and Moses in both the Jewish and Islamic religions) and that religious belief and faith are independent of labels and obeying rules and stereotypes, allowing for the kind of fluid religious identity that Momo achieves. Though there’s not much to suggest that Momo has already been schooled in Jewish religious belief by his father. Perhaps if there had been a voice-over narrative done by Momo as a mature man, commenting on aspects of his adolescence, viewers would get a stronger sense of Momo on the road to personal growth and the film might not be so sentimental.

I also think the film would have been a lot stronger and more profound if it hadn’t stuck closely to the source novel by Eric-Emanuel Schmitt, and had a completely different ending in which Momo pursues a varied and different career path, and derives more self-knowledge and a greater understanding of what Demirdji had tried to teach him. As the events in the film date back nearly 50 years ago, having a conclusion set in the present day, with Momo in his twilight years reflecting over a past life (in which perhaps he had become a civic leader and tried to improve conditions in the neighbourhood of Rue Bleue) and remembering the lessons of his youth, might be more appropriate than a coda in which Momo is a young man running the shop and seeing his adolescence reflected in a young shoplifter.

Kekexili: Mountain Patrol : powerful Western-style film about an obsessive pursuit

Lu Chuan, “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol” (2004)
 
Not often that you come across a film bearing a strong conservation message combined with a package of stunning mountain and desert scenery, a sub-text about honour and camaraderie despite political differences and some limited commentary on social and economic conditions in a particular region. In the space of 90 mintes, Lu Chuan’s “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol” weaves all these and other concerns into a structure that appears as part-documentary / part-news item / part-drama set on the high Tibetan plateau in western China. While the film’s thrust is a plea to audiences to help save and preserve populations of the Tibetan antelope and stop the illegal trade in their skins, there are other issues touched on in the film that deserve equal importance.
 
News reporter Gayu (Zhang Lei) arrives in a small Tibetan frontier town to investigate the murder of a patrol-man by antelope poachers and find out more about the patrol itself. He meets the head of the patrol Ritai (Du Buojie) and his right-hand man Liu Dong (Qi Liang) who agree to take him on a typical patrol to search for the poachers. The journey of several patrol-men into the mountains and over the high plains is arduous. Gayu comes to realise that Ritai’s relentless pursuit of the poachers, all of them well-known to the patrol, is dangerous due in part to the severe and unpredictable weather and the general physical conditions. It’s also futile for the patrol: the lack of proper and regular government funding means that the patrol quickly runs short on supplies so Ritai sends Liu Dong back into town (hundreds of kilometres away) for more food and fuel, and has to leave two other patrol-men behind when a patrol-car runs out of petrol. The group left to pursue the poachers is seriously under-manned. Liu Dong also has to sell some antelope pelts to raise cash for medicine for the injured patrol-men who go back to town with him and to buy supplies, and thus the patrol itself is implicated in the illegal trade. The search ends in disaster for the entire patrol: the two patrol-men minding the car grow weak and hungry and eventually perish in a severe snow-storm; Liu Dong gets the supplies but ends up dying in dry quicksand when his van is bogged down on the way back; and Ritai is shot dead by the poachers’ leader when eventually he catches up with the whole group and finds himself out-numbered and out-gunned. Only Gayu survives to make his own way back to civilisation with Ritai’s body.
 
Though Ritai’s pursuit of the poachers is ultimately suicidal, the viewer realises from the men’s encounters that both the hunters and hunted know each other too well and an unspoken code of honour exists between the two groups. The patrol-men seem to enjoy the thrill of the chase and the adventures they have together and the poachers get a kick out of being wanted men and leading the patrol on a wild goose chase. The poachers even know that their pursuers are often short on money and offer them the chance to become poachers themselves and never want for money for the rest of their lives. The honour system breaks down due to the overall poverty of the region that forces Ritai to abandon his prisoners to the mercy of nature and which is also partly why the poachers continue their illegal work in spite of being captured, fined or punished repeatedly.
 
Apart from Du Buojie and Qi Liang, all the actors who appear are native Tibetan amateurs and some of their dialogue may well be improvised. Du portrays Ritai as a hard-bitten anti-hero type who pushes and tests himself and his men against nature as well as try to protect it. The physical environment of the Tibetan plateau emerges as a significant “character” as well as a magnificent and stunning backdrop: the harsh and capricious weather and the treacherous roads and geology direct much of the simple plot and are the cause of several characters’ deaths. The film crew also suffered hardships and illnesses and the production manager from Columbia Pictures, one of the film’s sponsors, died in a car accident on location. Significant too is the use of Tibetan music, both the droning music of the monasteries during the sky-burial scenes of two patrol-men and the rustic folk music, to give the film a distinctive melancholy atmosphere and a sense of isolation and loneliness.
 
The use of the Tibetan equivalent of what we might call Country and Western music brings up the question of how closely the film resembles Western genre films. Several conventions of the Western genre are present: among other things, the pursuit of bad guys by the good guys which takes them through a remote and harsh environment that becomes a significant antagonist to the good guys and tests their physical and moral being; moreover, the pursuit takes on obsessive overtones for Ritai, far beyond the pleasure of the chase or the chance for adventure; and the film calls into question whether an abstract ideal or simply doing what the law requires can be worth sacrificing the lives of good, brave men like Liu Dong. The good guys and the bad guys are evenly matched in weaponry and arguments for their respective causes, and the film may attain a power from the ambiguous moral positions of the heroes and villains who find they actually have much in common. Often the women in such films have very minor roles as girlfriends or wives pleading with their menfolk to stay home (and stay alive) and this is the case with “Kekexili …”, in which Liu Dong’s scenes with his prostitute girlfriend provide the film’s most heart-wrenching moments before he leaves her to start back on his tragically fatal journey.
 
For all the power of the imagery, the themes and the plot, I find the “happy” ending, done entirely in subtitles, rather too pat for my liking. The film does say the Tibetan antelope was granted protection from illegal poaching by the establishment of a national reserve and a fully funded, professional patrol replacing the volunteer patrol. There is nothing said about whether the volunteers were invited to join the professional patrol or if the professional patrol is staffed by both Tibetans and Chinese. This makes me wonder whether the problem Ritai mentions to Gayu about the patrol’s funding is actually one of forgetfulness and neglect on the government’s part, and not one of the government deliberately ignoring the patrol because it happens to be a local Tibetan initiative born out of love and respect for nature. All too often in many parts of the world, conservation measures to preserve endangered animal and plant species or to protect the natural environment founder because the local community is not consulted or is not allowed to have an active role in the conservation project.
 
 

Monsters (dir. Gareth Edwards): likely to be a minor cult classic but lacking in refinement

 

Gareth Edwards, “Monsters”, Vertigo Films (2010)
 
Some time in the not too distant future, a NASA space probe has gone and collected some alien life-forms from one of those recently discovered giant exoplanets orbiting various stars hundreds of light years away. On its way back the probe crash-lands in northern Mexico and the life-forms, surviving the blast and the hit of oxygen and other unfamiliar gases, escape and proliferate. Six years after that terrible event, an entire area of several million square kilometres along the border with the United States has been declared an Infected Zone: that is, it’s infected with giant squid and octopus aliens with long skinny insect legs to walk on land and huge tentacles to throw tow-trucks and fighter jets around for ballgame practice. Cities in the Zone are left abandoned, buildings and highways are left in ruins and only the very poor who cannot escape scrape whatever existence they can from the land. Just how much fun these cephalopods get up to is demonstrated early on when we see on night vision a US army convoy, complete with a soldier singing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, run into one such creature: there’s an explosion, a tank is damaged, a man starts screaming for help and attempts to drag a woman off the road away from the enraged beast. Soldiers rescue the woman but leave the man behind to suffer a horrible death.
 
The bulk of the film is a road movie about two mismatched people, Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha Windon (Whitney Able), thrown together by Kaulder’s unseen magazine employer. Kaulder has come down to Mexico on an assignment to do a story on the aliens and their effect on the local people when he gets a call to escort the boss’s daughter back to the US. He finds her and initially their train journey goes smoothly – until the train driver is told to stop and turn back. Kaulder and Samantha leave the train and hitch-hike down to the coast where they try to catch the morning ferry. Unfortunately they lose their passports and the ferry leaves; the only remaining option is for them to go through the Infected Zone with an armed guard escort to the border.
 
The two are determined not to speak to each other, Kaulder angry at having to “baby-sit” the boss’s daughter, but they bond together enough that, down at the coast when he discovers she’s not interested in him and is engaged to someone else who she seems uninterested in, he ends up getting drunk and in bed with a prostitute who later steals the passports. The prostitute is able to take the documents and Kaulder’s cash because when Sam sees her with Kaulder, Sam runs away as if stood up and Kaulder runs after her, leaving the valuables behind. The way in which Sam and Kaulder become friends, start to trust each other and then fall in love through their travels in the Zone and beyond stretches credibility but Able and McNairy’s minimal acting at least puts meat and bones on two otherwise very vague and sketchy character types. Perhaps it is indeed possible that two initially incompatible human beings who are actually starved for proper affection can, through unique shared experiences that involve extreme and intense emotion and behaviour on their part, be more than travelling acquaintances?
 
As they travel through the Zone, Sam and Kaulder learn something of the aliens’ life-cycle (luckily for them, this doesn’t include humans as larval incubators – Sigourney Weaver can breathe easily now) and see the creatures close up twice: the first time, it’s as though they’re on a safari trip, watching wild animals go about their business; the second time, it’s in a more conventionally sci-fi horror setting with the exception that a screaming US fighter jet on patrol has upset the creatures and caused them to go on a rampage. As a result the two travellers lose their armed escorts and must continue on their own. The movie’s sub-text, which began with the monsters as a metaphor for illegal Mexican and Central American migrants entering the US through the porous US-Mexican border, becomes richer: the alien creatures, through their conversion of the semi-desert region of northern Mexico into lush tropical rainforest (complete with an abandoned Aztec or Mayan pyramid – how that got in there, I’d like to know), represent a regeneration of life and it’s quite possible that through their close contact with the aliens and nature, Sam and Kaulder become awakened to the humanity in themselves.
 
Sam and Kaulder’s ascent of the Mayan pyramid (representing a failed empire) to rest and view the distant Wall along the US-Mexican border is a remarkable highlight of the movie, not least because of the multi-layered symbolism within the beautiful and atmospheric if slightly unreal scene: among other things, the Wall is a replication of the Great Wall of China, itself a monumental failed attempt to stop barbarian invasions of Chinese empires, and implying that the United States has become a self-made giant ghetto. The symbolism becomes even greater once Sam and Kaulder reach the border and cross over: they leave abundant green nature and walk into a deserted barren landscape where all houses have been hit by air strikes and one survivor they see is severely traumatised. Now the Wall is a veil to stop foreigners from seeing what America has become and how far from the invincible military superpower empire the nation has actually fallen. The conversation the two have about seeing America from the outside while resting on the ruined pyramid’s summit takes on an extra bitter resonance.
 
We see the aliens only a few times in the film and it’s not until near the film’s end in the petrol station scene that we see them in their rather ordinary giant squid entirety. Sam and Kaulder watch in fascinated awe as two giant aliens, crackling with electrical energy, glide toward each other on their stilts and entwine tentacles. The subliminal message being sent to the two humans is obvious: Sam and Kaulder should stay together rather than return to their empty lives in the world’s biggest hermetically sealed ghetto state. The humans get the message all right (the creatures’ pheromones blowing into their faces help too) and start to kiss. In the meantime a US army convoy, complete with a soldier singing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, is barrelling along the road to collect the two travellers.
 
The film could have been a lot better in its character development – Kaulder is a cynical, unlikeable guy and one wonders what the more capable Sam sees in him, at least until we discover he has a son from an old fling – with better dialogue that doesn’t have to be witty or smart-arse spitfire repartee but at least makes the two lead characters more three-dimensional and maybe more conflicted about what they’re going back to and what they’re giving up at journey’s end. As it turns out, journey’s end is The End for one of the pair. Apart from the two leads and the threadbare plot, the film unfolds rather like a beautiful nature documentary with even the aliens appearing like local wildlife – albeit giant local wildlife toying with ruined fighter jets – and parts of their life-cycle and behaviour on display for open-minded people. The idea of a sci-fi horror film about an alien invasion combining nature documentary, the road movie genre with two people developing a moving relationship and some political commentary is original and inspired, and if the director had had more experience in making movies and didn’t have to do nearly everything himself on a small budget, he could have pulled the whole thing off more successfully and the film might have become a masterpiece. I can see “Monsters” becoming a minor cult classic: it has most of the elements for a great movie and the main thing holding these back is a lack of refinement and development.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird: escapist and fun spoof homage to Sergio Leone spaghetti / paella Westerns

Kim Jiwoon, “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” (2010)

An affectionate homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti / paella Westerns of the 1960’s, this Korean riff on horse operas is set in Manchuria in the 1930’s when that region had been taken over by Japan forcibly from an unstable China for its mineral wealth. The Korean peninsula had already been chafing under Japanese rule for nearly three decades so many individual Koreans, Japanese and Chinese alike were escaping to Manchuria, Japan’s Wild West, to make their fortunes. A steam train whooshing along a new rail line in that territory is carrying many such hopefuls and one passenger in particular is a Japanese official with a Russian map in his possession. His journey would be relaxing and uneventful were it not for a lone bandit, one Yoon Taegu (Song Kangho), who insists on taking the map for himself. While Taegu is shaking down the official (I’ll refer to the main characters by their personal names, not their surnames for obvious reasons), a group of ruffians led by debonair hitman Park Changyi (Lee Byunghun) arrives and derails the train; Changyi is also after the map on behalf of someone. While Changyi and his men rampage through the train carriages, a bounty hunter, Park Dowon (Jung Woosung), arrives on the scene searching for Changyi. In the ensuing bullet-zinging match, Taegu manages to get away on foot and scoots across the desert to where his pal Mangil is waiting on a motorbike. The two comrades race away from the train, observed by a second bunch of rogues led by Byungchun (Yoon Jemoon) on a distant hill.

This is but the prelude to an extended series of chases in which Changyi and Byungchun pursue Taegu for the map which Taegu believes will lead him to hidden Chinese treasures located somewhere deep in the interior Manchurian badlands. Along the way we have punch-ups and shoot-outs in a bar, an old lady’s home and through the alley-ways of a dusty town (over which Dowon, hanging onto a pulley with one hand and brandishing a gun in the other, swings above buildings and scaffolding Tarzan-style and picks off Changyi’s men in an inspired episode) and divers other locales. Everything culminates in a race across the desert, Taegu on the motorbike hightailing it for the mountains where the treasure is buried, with Changyi and Byunchun and their men in hot pursuit on horseback, eagerly followed by units of the Japanese Imperial Army. Dowon also turns up on his trusty steed, working his way through the soldiers and decimating them; being the good guy, of course he can take on hundreds of disposable soldiers and bandits and kill them all while remaining unscathed. Eventually Taegu, Changyi and Dowon converge on the place that corresponds to the spot marked “X” on the Russian map and find themselves in a three-way Mexican stand-off. Changyi reveals a secret and we viewers realise Changyi’s been pursuing Taegu for a personal reason as well; the dynamic between Dowon and Taegu, hitherto allies of convenience, changes drastically. This means more hot lead gets wasted – and who of the three also gets wasted? And does any of them actually find the treasure that’s thought to be buried in the ground?

The film is brisk and fast-paced with hardly any let-up: no sooner does one episode of bullet-fuelled mayhem end than another episode of frantic violence begins or has its roots. Short scenes of exposition link the action episodes and provide just enough information about the three main characters so we know something of their motives and why they’re chasing each other and the treasure. Clean-cut, plain-looking bounty hunter Dowon just wants to bring Changyi to justice and Changyi is an all-out psychotic villain with a certain Johnny Depp / Captain Jack Sparrow flamboyance in his hair-cut, make-up, clothes and ear jewellery. Most complex of the three is Taegu, the stocky and mostly clownish bandit who gets out of scrapes in the most comic of ways – though Western viewers will find his treatment of two antagonists in an out-of-town brothel a literal pain in the arse – and generally presents as a lovable if not too bright or morally upright chap until near the end when Changyi drops his clanger about a notorious bandit called Finger Chopper. Song who is already familiar to Western audiences in South Korean arthouse flicks “The Host” and “Thirst” does a sterling job giving substance and humanity to an otherwise stock cardboard comic character so that by the end you really can believe Taegu was once a hard-boiled criminal. The two Parks (the good one and the bad one) are rather more stereotyped, the good guy Dowon in particular not much more than a do-gooder, efficient robot with not much screen-time to show he may have motives other than the bounty money to want to chase down Changyi.

Some breath-taking desert and mountain landscapes feature in the film and the frontier towns with their wooden scaffolding, sturdy if slightly ramshackle buildings and surprisingly clean streets and alleys have an air of expectant excitement as though gunfights are a daily occurrence with regular set times, durations and body counts. Unusual filming techniques such as rotating the camera to get a panoramic view or following a character very closely through the train or the street add to the fast pace and give an edge to the already deranged plot and the crazy people populating it. The music deserves an honourable mention: true, it’s not a patch on Ennio Morricone’s score for the Sergio Leone flick whose title inspired this Korean film’s title but its mix of steel-tinged guitar melody, acid psychedelic synth tones and stern ghostly chanting is original and off-beat and suits the daft and goofy spirit of the film.

The film is very over-the-top and there are in-jokes, spoofs of horse opera genre conventions and sly digs at Korean, Japanese and Chinese nationality stereotypes that will go completely over a lot of people’s heads due to the frantic pace. I’m not sure that many people will be able to remember what they’ve seen after the film finishes as there is so much happening in a 2-hour span. There is a sketchy message about nursing past hurts, knowing when to let go, allowing bygones to be bygones and giving people the chance to make a new beginning for themselves. With regard to this message, director Kim had done an alternative ending for Korean audiences in which two characters survive the three-way gunfight but then one starts chasing the other in a never-ending futile cat-and-mouse game. Even the treasure itself turns out to be something other than what Taegu and everybody else had imagined so the whole chase itself, escapist and fun though it’s been, has been in vain.

The Kite Runner: tear-jerker with weak plot and unappealing hero

Marc Forster, “The Kite Runner” (2006)

Based on a best-selling novel by Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini, this is a picturesque film of childhood friendship that for a brief time transcends class and ethnic barriers but is torn apart permanently by rape, politics and war. The two young friends are Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) who spend time together playing kites and reading stories in an idyllic pre-1979 Afghanistan. Amir is an only child who lives with his stern upper-class father or Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) in a large house and Hassan is the son of Baba’s servant Ali. Early scenes of Kabul (actually Kashgar in western China) are very picturesque with stunning blue skies and mountain scenery which set off the colourful kite-fighting scenes perfectly. Unfortunately the boys run into a gang of teenagers led by Assef (Elham Ehsas) who reminds the two that they are ethnically separate and prepares to attack Amir for associating with Hassan; Hassan prepares to defend Amir and Assef backs off. Not for long though – the next time the boys run into Assef and his lot is during a kite-fighting festival with Hassan running after Amir’s winning kite and into Assef’s clutches. Assef rapes the boy and Amir looks on, unseen, but becomes filled with guilt for not defending Hassan the way Hassan would if he’d been attacked. Because of his guilt, Amir frames Hassan as a thief; Hassan confesses to protect Amir and Baba, perhaps understanding Hassan’s motive, forgives the boy. Ali decides to leave Baba’s employ out of shame at what the child has supposedly done and takes Hassan with him.

Soon after the Soviets invade Afghanistan and Baba, having long been critical of Communism, takes Amir and flees the country. While crossing the border, Baba, Amir and some refugees are accosted by Soviet soldiers who threaten to rape a female refugee. Baba risks his life defending the woman’s honour and the soldiers back down. Baba and Amir eventually end up in the United States where they are holed up in a tiny apartment and Baba takes a job as an attendant at a petrol station. The years pass and Amir (Khalid Abdalla) achieves his ambition of becoming a writer and marries Soraya (Atossa Leoni), the daughter of a former Afghan general.

Not longer after Baba dies, at least in the film anyway, an old friend of Baba’s, Rahim Khan (Shaun Toub), who has long known of Amir’s difficult relationship with his dad, contacts Amir to come to Pakistan where he tells Amir of what befell Hassan and Ali after the Soviet invasion and then after the warlord period and the Taliban’s ascent to power, and reveals a secret about Hassan’s paternity. Amir goes to Kabul to find Hassan’s son Sohrab (Ali Danish Bakhtiyari) and discovers the child being used as a dancing boy by a Taliban official who is none other than his old childhood nemesis Assef (Abdul Salaam Yusoufzai). In a slapstick scene, Assef beats up Amir and Sohrab defends Amir; the two then escape Assef and Amir takes Sohrab back to the United States where he and Atossa adopt him.

The first pre-1980’s half of the film is not bad with the emphasis on the two small boys who share a close bond and look as though they were made to be pals. The kite-flying scenes, enhanced with CGI technology, can be spectacular though they wear very thin on plausibility. Ershadi as Baba strikes a fine balance between being stern, austere and patriarchal on the one hand, and being a man of integrity and loving father on the other. One feels for Baba when he has to take a low-paying, low-status job once the father and son are safe in America but Baba retains his quiet dignity right to his dying day. Once Ershadi’s out of the way, the film becomes seriously unhinged and degenerates into Hollywood B-grade action-thriller mode. The scenes where Amir, with the help of his guide Farid, finds and rescues Sohrab are beyond farce: they re-enact Amir’s first meeting with Assef when both were children and Hassan then threatened to hit Assef with his slingshot if he hurt Amir. Except this time Assef doesn’t back off and the spirit of Hassan in Sohrab carries out the slingshot threat. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry for the film’s integrity, and cheering for Amir and Sohrab was out of the question. I know that, to paraphrase Anton Chekhov, if a slingshot is presented early on, it has to be used later in the drama but Chekhov didn’t have a whole scene re-enactment in mind, much less the weapon as heirloom. Freudian psychoanalysts watching “The Kite Runner” will be having a field day analysing this film and pronouncing that someone’s imagination has gone into Moebius-strip overdrive.

The major problem with the film is not so much what happens once Baba is out of the way but with the development of Amir’s character as he grows up. The film establishes early on that Amir lacks moral fortitude and maintains Amir’s character weakness right up to the rescue scene. Opportunities for Amir to grow up morally during his teenage years are missed: the film could have featured a scene or two where Baba is treated badly or discriminated against and Amir, remembering his father’s defence of the refugee woman and the danger he put himself in, defends him in turn. At least by the time Amir graduates from college, we might see the beginnings of someone with a moral backbone, someone ready to be tested. Unfortunately the film persists in giving Amir an unchanging character so he ends up a rather unremarkable novelist and not really the kind of heroic man who’d travel all the way to Kabul just to rescue some unknown kid related to someone he’s probably tried to forget over the years.

I found the happy ending of Amir teaching Sohrab how to fly kites smug and not at all satisfying. Now that they’re father and son and Amir has “atoned” for his sins against Hassan, he, Sohrab and Soraya can sink into middle-class happy-family complacency and presumably forget all about Afghanistan. This points to another big problem with the film: that much of what happens in “The Kite Runner” is presented in a way that makes no attempt to relate the plot’s twists and turns to their specific political and cultural context. The second half of the film in which Amir travels back to Kabul fits into a pre-determined template about rescuing an innocent from a hell and the hero somehow becoming blessed or excused for past wrongs by doing so. The Taliban simply appear in the second half of the film and hey-ho Assef turns up as a card-carrying member. Nothing to say how the Taliban and Assef found each other and why they should be a perfect fit other than they’re just “bad”. There’s no background information as to how the Soviets left Afghanistan and how the Taliban became top dogs, necessitating Sohrab’s rescue: anything that might suggest the United States or anyone else had anything to do with the Taliban’s rise to power is avoided.

With a plot that falls into an infantile good-versus-evil scenario and the main character lacking appeal due to a script that doesn’t encourage his moral development, the film wastes a good cast and good locations and turns into just a tear-jerker about a broken friendship that must be repaired somehow. An opportunity to educate the public a little about the plight of orphans in Afghanistan and the political and social developments in that country since 1979 is missed. The film didn’t inspire me to find the book to read.

Rear Window: clever Hitchcock suspense film turns the tables on viewers as passive spectators

Alfred Hitchcock, “Rear Window” (1954)
 
From the days when Hollywood occasionally made films that featured rich sub-text and challenged audiences to question their role as viewers comes this enjoyably suspenseful Hitchcock thriller featuring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Stewart plays Jeff, a photojournalist laid up for several weeks at home with his leg in plaster due to an accident while on duty; Kelly plays his wealthy socialite girlfriend Lisa. Home is an apartment with large windows overlooking a central courtyard in a block of apartments, all of which feature large windows through which Jeff watches his neighbours at work and play to pass the long boring hours of recuperation.
 
The viewers come to know the neighbours well too: there is the long-married couple (Sara Berner and Frank Cady) in the top-most unit who sleep out on the balcony when the weather gets too hot and who have a little pulley system to lower their terrier in a basket down to the courtyard so he can run about; in one of the middle units is a young dancer (Georgine Darcy) who does exercises in her underwear during the day and in the evenings is courted by numerous suitors; on the ground floor is a middle-aged woman (Judith Evelyn) who lives alone and wishes for a boyfriend. Elsewhere in the apartments is a newly married couple, a woman sculptor working on a project and a songwriter (Rob Bagdassarian) who belts out new tunes on his piano but can’t get a career break. Then there’s Mr Thorwald (Raymond Burr), a travelling salesman who cares for his fussy invalid wife. Jeff spies on all of them with his binoculars and telescope camera, enjoying secret voyeuristic thrills while watching the dancer, sympathising with the single woman (he dubs her “Miss Lonelyhearts”) and the songwriter, and comparing himself and Lisa with some of the married couples. Lately Lisa’s been thumping him to commit to their relationship: she wants to go steady and eventually marry Jeff; he all but breaks out into a cold sweat thinking about how marriage will restrict his freedom and put a brake on his careening about the world as a photographer, and how it presumably will turn Lisa into a nagging old hag as well.
 
Over time, observing the residents, Jeff has a fantasy that Mr Thorwald has murdered his wife and disposed of her during one hot sleepless night. From then on, strange things occur in the Thorwalds’ home: porters take away an unusually large suitcase bound with ropes; Mr Thorwald is viewed through his kitchen window cleaning a saw and a large knife; Mrs Thorwald’s handbag frequently appears in the company of her husband but she is never seen at all; the little terrier starts sniffing around the flowers in the communal courtyard garden and Mr Thorwald urges it on. Jeff develops his hunch with Lisa and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) that something’s amiss with the Thorwalds; less convinced is police detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) so Jeff, Lisa and Stella must collect evidence to prove that Mr Thorwald has been up to no good and their combined endeavour puts both Lisa and Jeff in grave danger.
 
The film is made almost completely from Jeff’s point of view and is based entirely in his apartment: this clever and effortless approach puts viewers completely in sympathy with Jeff to the point where, like Jeff, they become unaware of how far entangled Jeff becomes in the affairs of the Thorwalds and the danger he puts himself, Lisa and Stella into until Lisa breaks into the Thorwalds’ home to find his wife’s jewellery and is attacked by Thorwald himself. (The approach also slyly lets Lisa off the hook for persuading Jeff that his version of events is correct and worth pursuing.) Even when Doyle reasonably questions Jeff’s very subjective and limited version of events and ultimately rejects everything Jeff says, viewers may still side with Jeff’s opinion as the only one that best explains what’s happened to Mrs Thorwald. The limited first-person point-of-view approach puts viewers in guilty collusion with Jeff: when Thorwald decides to pay a visit to Jeff, we can’t help but stay with Jeff, trying as best he can to defend himself and thwart Thorwald, to the bitter end so that we “share” some of the punishment Thorwald dishes out to him.
 
Just as masterly is the constant but subtle sub-plot that anchors Jeff’s beliefs about the Thorwalds: all the neighbours, both married, attached or single, mirror and comment on Jeff and Lisa’s relationship in some way. The Thorwalds’ marriage is a reversal of the main character’s relationship: Thorwald cares for his invalid wife who nags at him; Lisa looks after Jeff while he frets about not being able to travel and work, and they argue about their relationship. The couple with the terrier have the kind of snug, self-absorbed relationship Jeff fears he might have if he were married. The songwriter and Miss Lonelyhearts are frustrated with their lives; Lisa and Jeff are dissatisfied with aspects of their relationship. Throughout the film, the neighbours’ relationships change: the newly wed couple at the beginning of the film start to argue and nag each other; the long-married couple lose their terrier and perhaps go through a period of grief and evaluation of their relationship before acquiring a new puppy; the dancer all along has been waiting for her soldier boyfriend to return home; and the songwriter, who at last has a hit song, and Miss Lonelyhearts strike up a friendship.
 
In tandem, Jeff and Lisa’s relationship changes during the course of the film and this change is mirrored in Lisa’s clothes: first we see her in extravagant evening dress which resembles a bridal gown, initially confirming Jeff’s opinion of her as too upper-class for him; over time her clothes change to business wear, a sun-frock and finally casual blouse and jeans, representing her accommodation of Jeff’s preferences and desires. Then by climbing over a balcony and into Thorwald’s home, confronting and resisting the man, and getting hold of the evidence of Thorwald’s wrong-doing, she proves she is willing to get her hands dirty and is capable of changing and becoming the wife Jeff desires. Jeff is forced by circumstances into helplessness and unconsciously mimics the actions of traditionally helpless women in Hollywood movies (for example, putting his hands to his mouth) while watching Thorwald accost Lisa roughly. As a result of Lisa’s actions, Jeff and Lisa finally commit to each other in the wordless coda where they are settled together in his apartment, Jeff able to sleep and no longer interested in watching his neighbours, and Lisa keeping watch over him. By changing her reading material from an adventure novel to a fashion magazine, Lisa signals to viewers that role change is easy for her and is something she can use to get what she needs and wants from Jeff and remain true to herself.
 
Superficially a caper about a photojournalist used to being the observer and chronicler of events, reinforced by the use of limited first-person point-of-view, “Rear Window” is a clever inversion of the audience as voyeur and an interrogation of the film-viewing habit: we identify early on with Jeff as passive spectators (but able to switch on and off our viewing of the neighbours’ antics at will) and with him are dragged into the crime scenario by Lisa and Stella. Thorwald completes Jeff’s integration into that scenario (and by implication, into the life of the apartment block community): he attacks him and then drags him onto the balcony, attracting the attention of the neighbours; Jeff ironically becomes the main spectacle when he falls and from then on, can never be just a passive observer who can withdraw from the scene whenever he wants. He has to appeal to the neighbours for help and by doing so, he alerts them of his existence; now that they know him, he’s now part of their community and his antics are theirs. The film perhaps is asking us: can viewers just be passive observers and, by observing something happening, aren’t we also influencing the course of events and bringing them to us? After all, Thorwald only attacks Jeff when he discovers Jeff observing him. This is something well worth remembering in our current age where news becomes “news” thanks mainly to media like Youtube, Twitter and Wikileaks: “news” doesn’t exist, or something hasn’t “happened”, if there are no observers to spread it and start off a chain of actions and reactions that involve both observers and the observed.
 
One observation I might make at this point is that a couple of years after “Rear Window” was released, Grace Kelly had married Prince Rainier of Monaco and was forced to give up her film career; at the same time, she remained an object of tabloid gossip and rumour about her love life, which began at the start of her acting career, right up to and beyond her death in a car crash in 1982. After the sheen of Kelly’s tragic death faded away, the tabloids’ voyeuristic, prurient gaze turned to her children’s various romantic foibles and has followed them to the present day. Kelly attempted to resume her acting career at least once; Hitchcock offered her the lead role in his film “Marnie” but Rainier forced her to turn it down. The contrast between what possibilities marriage implies for Lisa, as demonstrated by Jeff’s neighbours and the film’s closing scene, and what actually worked out for Kelly in her marriage couldn’t have been much greater.
 

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 …