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.
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.
Abbas Kiarostami, “Taste of Cherry” (1997)
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.
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 …
Werner Herzog, “Aguirre, Wrath of God”, Werner Herzog Filmproduktion (1972)
A dramatic fictional rendition of the 1560 expedition of the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Ursua down the Maranon and Amazon rivers, and his overthrow and murder by rebel soldiers led by Lope de Aguirre, becomes a study of the pursuit of impossible ambitions and obsession to the point of madness and destruction in the hands of German director Werner Herzog. The film brought early acclaim to Herzog as a director and to lead actor Klaus Kinski for his acting, and was the first of five film collaborations that started with “Aguirre …” and ended with “Cobra Verde” in the late 1980’s. The two might have made more films together if Kinski hadn’t died in 1991: though Herzog and Kinski had a love-hate relationship to the extent they both apparently plotted to kill each other while working on “Aguirre …”, they at least respected each other professionally to want to work together again on further movie projects.
The first several frames of “Aguirre …”, where the actors are traipsing down a narrow path on a steep mountain side, carrying cannon and a heavy sedan-chair among other things, are at once hair-raising for sheer audacity and the danger involved, and breath-taking for the scenery. The expedition that’s just come down this way is under the command of Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles), younger brother of the more famous Francisco who found and brought down the Inca empire in Peru, in search of the legendary city of gold, El Dorado. Separated from the nearest Christian settlement by hundreds of miles, Pizarro splits his expedition into groups and puts one such group, 40 men in total, under the control of Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) with Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) as second in charge, to go on ahead by rafting downstream. Joining this group are Ursua’s wife Inez (Helena Rojo), Aguirre’s teenage daughter Flores (Cecilia Rivera), the monk Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) and an aristocrat Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling). Almost immediately after Ursua’s group starts its trip, it runs into trouble: one raft with several men gets stranded in an eddy in the Amazon river and the rest of the group debate as to how to rescue them with Aguirre suggesting the raft be abandoned. A rescue group eventually reaches the other side of the river to rescue the stranded men but discover they have been killed mysteriously. The rest of the rafts then get washed away by the river and Ursua tries to return to Pizarro’s main expedition but Aguirre, eager to find El Dorado and win fame and wealth, leads a rebellion and replaces Ursua with Guzman as nominal leader. Ursua is tried in a kangaroo court and found “guilty” but Guzman as judge spares his life.
Aguirre fetes the foolish Guzman as emperor of a new territory and the rebels formally proclaim their breakaway from the rule of Spain. They build a new raft and sail down the Amazon but over time, starvation, isolation and attacks by hostile natives who never confront the soldiers directly (there are no actual scenes of fighting in the film) take their toll on the men. Yet they continue their quest for El Dorado as Aguirre is an oppressive leader who punishes disobedience and disloyalty with death and only Inez de Ursua dares to challenge his authority. Guzman is found dead, presumably murdered, and Ursua follows him soon after in death. Shortly after, Inez deserts the failing group. Eventually an attack by unseen Amazon natives wipes out the group including Flores and only Aguirre is left alive, nursing his obsession and going mad as the raft continues its fruitless journey downstream.
Viewers expecting much melodrama, frenzied action, shouting, hammy acting and bloody scenes will be very disappointed: the whole film is shot and directed very minimally so it has the air of a nature documentary or home movie. Acting and dialogue are minimal as well with a sketchy, mostly improvised narrative. The film in its last 30 minutes has the quality of a bad dream and a magic realist moment of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez sort comes late in the proceedings when the starving and delirious soldiers spy in the distance a galleon stuck in a tree far above the ground and start arguing over whether the scene is for real or they’re just hallucinating. Of course the symbolism of that sighting is completely lost on the men, let alone the immediate physical dangers it portends. Kinski’s performance as Aguirre is restrained, studied and calculating: his madness is more implied than open in the increasingly contorted way he stands and struts about and in the way he looks at the camera in close-ups, his head aslant, his eyes glassy and staring. Originally Kinski wanted to play Aguirre as a crazed maniac and clashed with Herzog over his portrayal; Herzog allowed Kinski to blow his top off and then filmed Kinski after he had calmed down. I’m not sure that I’d accept Kinski’s interpretation if he’d been allowed his way: I might have found it shocking at first, amusing second and then tiresome and campy. Under Herzog’s interpretation, Aguirre’s madness seems more plausible, as much caused by circumstances as the man’s own ambitions, and there’s a suggestion that even after the story has ended, Aguirre’s madness deteriorates further with the arrival of the monkeys. The boredom of life stuck with other barmy people on the raft, the frustration of following a dream that may not be real after all, the effects of starvation, fear of the forest and the unknown, and ever-present death … all these make more impression with matter-of-fact direction than a more conventional story-telling approach might have done.
The minimal camerawork with its long shots enables the Amazonian environment to emerge as a significant character in its own right: the river traps a number of men in a whirlpool and the forests along its sides hide dangers and unimaginable horrors beneath their silent leafy canopy. Staring at the bland, banal greenness all day long, knowing what terrors lurked within and expecting death at any moment, any sane person might go clean round the bend. Small wonder that Inez, once ashore again and in some kind of trance, wanders away into the forest and allows it to swallow her up. You become aware of the camera only when it starts to circle the raft at the very end, mimicking the whirlpool that trapped the other raft early on and emphasising Aguirre’s extreme isolation and descent into madness.
Understated and minimal as it is, the film’s not likely to appeal to most people expecting a strong narrative and lots of continuous action and dialogue that push the plot. Yet for all the long shots where you’re just looking at trees, people’s immobile faces, reflections in the river or even a mouse collecting its babies, the pace of the film is surprisingly fast for something that seems so static. It’s arguable that the spare approach makes a deeper impression on people than one where there’s so much busyness that viewers end up remembering very little of what they see and hear. Even so, I’d still recommend people should watch the film for a number of reasons: true, it’s entirely fictional but seeing people cooped up on a raft trying to cope with boredom, hot and sticky weather and getting on each other’s nerves in an unfamiliar and frightening environment may tickle some folks’ fancy (they’re the people fixated on watching “Survivor”); and among other things you become aware there are different approaches to telling a story which need not be all about action and fighting. As arthouse or cult movies go, “Aguirre …” is one of the easier ones to watch as there’s still a definite narrative and just enough loopiness for a mainstream audience to accept as credible.
The real Lope de Aguirre was perhaps very much the man Kinski had in mind: the man was a megalomaniac and paranoid who, as in the film initially, followed Pedro de Ursua with 300 soldiers and several hundred natives on an expedition down the Maranon and Amazon rivers in 1560. In 1561, Aguirre overthrew Ursua and then Fernando de Guzman and took over the expedition, had himself proclaimed prince of Peru, Tierra Firma and the Chilean provinces, and led his men to the Atlantic Ocean via the Orinoco river, destroying native settlements along the way. He reached Barquisimeto in Venezuela where he was attacked by forces loyal to Spain. Realising his situation was hopeless, he killed his teenage daughter Elvira, who had accompanied him, to save her from being raped and mistreated as the child of a traitor. He was captured, shot and beheaded and his body was cut up into pieces and thrown into the streets.
Alejandro Amenabar, “Agora” (2010)
This Spanish production presents a fictional account of the final years and death of the Greek female scientist / mathematician / philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria. In Western literature, the death of Hypatia has often symbolised the decline of classical Greco-Roman civilisation and the values associated with it (in particular, free scientific inquiry and questioning / re-examining one’s beliefs and authority) and the rise of early Christianity and the values associated with that (unquestioning belief and faith in authority, literalism, bigotry and intolerance, the repression of women) and the film picks up this representation to decry religious authoritarianism and the damage it can cause. It’s an ambitious film with beautiful sets and actors with talent swanning around in gorgeous costumes but it’s let down by a confused and broken story that tries so hard to be relevant to modern audiences that clarity and emotional drama got left out.
As Hypatia, reputedly a woman of great beauty as well as of intellect, Rachel Weisz is not a bad choice: she does a good job with what she’s given though I think the film-makers could have given her more meaty work. The real-life Hypatia exercised some political and intellectual influence and leadership in Alexandria, and in this aspect of her life, Weisz isn’t quite so convincing as she is Hypatia the scientist: at one point in the film, she suggests that her persecutor, Cyril of Alexandria (Sami Samir), should be arrested but on what basis, she doesn’t say and doesn’t back up her statement with argument or emotional force. As slave-owner to Davus (Max Minghella), Weisz’s Hypatia should be more ambiguous than she is: true, she’s gentle and treats him well when she feels he deserves it or gets hurt but when the plot calls for her to treat Davus as the slave he is, she isn’t severe or commanding enough. Spending much of her screen time trying to reconcile her Neoplatonic beliefs about an earth-centred universe where the planets move in perfect circles with actual astronomical phenomena that suggest something else – and finding the solution to her questions in a heliocentric view of the universe in which the earth and its sister planets revolve around the sun elliptically – Weisz’s Hypatia strikes me as a refined and perhaps detached aristocrat who seems at a loss as to how to deal with the changing social and political realities that eventually claim her life. She offers no opinions on the various religious ideologies vying for the Alexandrian citizens’ hearts and minds and can only say that she believes in philosophy (but what kind, the film doesn’t say).
The film’s plot is mired in a fictitious love triangle of Hypatia, her student Orestes (Oscar Isaac) who later becomes prefect of Alexandria, and the slave Davus: since Hypatia spurns both Orestes and Davus as lovers, and these two never actually meet, why do the film-makers even bother setting the three of them up in the first place? Davus, fed up with Hypatia’s condescension towards him (he is her slave after all, what does he expect?), converts to Christianity and leaves her service to join Cyril’s congregation but finds himself torn between his loyalty to Christianity and his passion for Hypatia. Orestes goes from being an ardent, red-blooded pagan wannabe suitor to an ineffectual, morally conflicted Christian politician who admits to feeling lost without Hypatia’s advice. That’s about all the character development the film offers and it’s wasted on two support roles. Of the characters of Hypatia and her enemy the Bishop of Alexandria, and their motives for being and acting the way they do, there is no development: Hypatia is just a self-interested geek who sometimes dabbles in politics and the Bishop is a sinister cult leader who manipulates his followers all the way through the film. Wearing black turban-like cloths around their heads, these followers are made to resemble current enemy flavour of the day the Afghan Taliban in case we don’t quite get the message.
The film’s earnestness and desire to relate Hypatia’s times to us modern ignoramuses is emphasised by the camera’s occasional pulling back from the action, right, ri-i-ight back to take in a Google Earth satellite view of Alexandria (lovingly done at times, as if to say, wow, isn’t this reconstruction of an ancient city beautiful?) and of northern Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean region. We get the picture: religious bigotry and violence existed 1,600 years ago as it does now in the same parts of the world. The implication is a bit despairing, as if the conflict has always been an ongoing thing and only the actors change; first it was Christians versus pagans then Jews, now it’s Jews versus Muslims. The film breaks in half with two time periods in Hypatia’s life, one in which the Christian mobs pick on the pagans and sack their temple and library, the other taking place several years later with pagan worship outlawed so the Christians have to sledge the Jews instead. In the intervening period, Orestes has converted to Christianity and his character mellowed while Cyril has been promoted to Bishop of Alexandria. If viewers don’t get lost trying to figure the connection between these two arbitrarily chosen periods and why Orestes has become Christian and how his personality can have changed so much while Cyril stays much the same but with better pay and the lifestyle to match, I’ll be surprised.
The film might have done better if Davus had been made the main character and observed his mistress’s downfall and death; he might also come to realise he has been brainwashed by Bishop Cyril and try to break away from him. Usually the purpose of having a fictional character in a movie about real-life people and events is to provide a focal person for the audience to follow the action and maybe comment on it. Through Davus’s eyes we might have seen Hypatia as a different woman, one more authoritative perhaps, more arrogant even, arrogant enough to think her status as an intellectual, political advisor and local celebrity warmly regarded by both Christians and non-Christians alike would protect her from a lynch mob. We might have seen the attraction of Christianity for someone like Davus and the danger of religious manipulation and extremist behaviour, and understand his inner conflict better.
As it is, the film is a good-looking introduction to a historical figure most people know little about in a period of ancient Roman history not previously covered by most films that cover the Roman Empire. I find it a shame that “Agora” is let down by an unnecessary plot vehicle, a protagonist and antagonist whose characters are rather flat compared to some others and a structure that just about derails the whole project by breaking in half. The pity is that Hypatia’s life and times contain enough real human drama and conflict about the forced retreat of science and reason before political expediency and religious extremism; the film could have made the point that Hypatia was as much a victim of Roman imperial policy and attitudes and of inaction on the part of local rulers in Roman Egypt as she was of the Christian lynch mob.