The Legend of Suram Fortress: Georgian folk-tale of self-sacrifice and love of country retold in a beautiful film

Sergei Parajanov, “Ambavi Suramis Tsikhitsa” /  “The Legend of Suram Fortress” (1986)

“The Legend of Suram Fortress” is based on an old Georgian folk tale as rewritten in the 19th century by writer Daniel Chonqadze. The plot isn’t hard to follow but there are digressions that almost overwhelm the narrative. Mediaeval Georgia is at war with nearby countries and needs strong fortifications to remain secure; all but one fortress hold strong against the country’s enemies. No-one knows how to make the fortress at Suram secure: an early scene shows the newly reinforced stronghold crumbling before the camera, the lens itself splashed with mud and water. During this time the Prince of Georgia sees fit to free his serf Durmishkhan (Zurab Kipshidze) who is left homeless and penniless as a result. He vows to buy the freedom of his love Vardo (Leila Alibegashvili) and to marry her but she foresees that he won’t return. Durmishkhan leaves Georgia and meets a rich merchant Osman-agha who tells the youngster his own history and conversion to Islam. Osman-agha takes on Durmishkhan as a son and heir and teaches him his trading business. Over the years Durmishkhan becomes a wealthy trader, marries and has a son called Zurab, and himself converts to Islam. In the meantime Vardo, despairing that she will never see Durmishkhan again, becomes a fortune-teller.

The situation in Georgia worsens and Osman-agha leaves his business to Durmishkhan and returns to Georgia where he dies. Durmishkhan and a grown-up Zurab (Levan Uchaneishvili) go to Georgia and – the plot becomes hazy at this point – Zurab enters the Prince’s service. The Prince orders all fortresses to be strengthened but Suram continues to crumble. He sends some envoys who include Zurab to visit the ageing Vardo (Sofiko Chiaureli) who, on recognising Zurab as her old lover’s son, keeps him aside from the others and tells him that a young blond and blue-eyed man must be bricked up alive in the fortress walls for the fortress to stand strong. Zurab, not knowing anything about Vardo’s past, later realises he is that man.

The narrative and Parajanov’s idiosyncratic style of directing that makes his movies akin to unfolding scrolls of dioramas of picturesque scenery inhabited by moving people and animals combine to make difficult viewing which is why repeated viewings may be necessary to fully appreciate this and similar films that showcase an unfamiliar culture through one of its stories. Although Parajanov breaks his tale into several episodes – the break-up does tend to disturb the film’s flow – in each episode the style of filming, with the camera set back some distance from the action and often at odd viewpoints such as knee-height or looking down from a balcony, means viewers have to try to take in action at the top of the screen (background scenes) as well as in the middle and front of the screen. There are many outdoor scenes, some of them spectacular and shot from afar, that almost amount to overkill for audiences more used to seeing movies in which action is shot fairly close up and the scenes or backgrounds are made generic or stereotyped enough to throw the focus onto the actors. Some of the outdoor locations – in particular the precipitous staircase to Vardo’s home after she becomes a fortune-teller – are so breath-taking that they deserve a longer still-life shot to themselves than they get in the film. The cast includes animals of the hoofed kind: horses, sheep, camels in many shots to themselves as groups and individuals and a couple of llamas (methinks that was an oversight) in one shot.

In this kind of film where plot and context override everything the quality of acting is not important so here it is minimal. Actors speak but don’t necessarily face one another – they tend to face the camera or look away from the recipient when speaking. If they appear to converse together, the camera frames their entire bodies and the activity around them. The dialogue serves to push the plot and feelings and opinions are not expressed. Viewers have to guess at what motivates Osman-agha then to give up his business and wealth, convert back to Christianity and return to Georgia at the risk of losing his life as his history forms a major sub-plot that may say something about how fluid ethnic and religious identities and loyalties can be and how easily small Christian Georgia could be swallowed up by the larger Islamic Turkish and Persian empires to its south. Perhaps Osman-agha’s motivation ties in with the film’s theme of self-sacrifice and loyalty to ideals higher than oneself: the aged merchant must be aware that renouncing Islam would lead to his death but his loyalty to the country of his birth and its religion overrides any qualms he has about being killed for apostasy. Another character whose motivations can be a puzzle is Vardo who knowingly sends her ex-lover’s son to his death yet mourns him at his grave. There’s the possibility any human sacrifice could have sufficed to strengthen the fortress and Vardo made up the bit about the sacrifice being an Adonis pin-up out of spite.

Some idea of Georgian culture and society as militant, passionate and heroic can be gleaned from the film though viewers may miss many background cultural details in following the plot and digesting the film’s tone and look. There are definite cultural influences from the Islamic societies south (Turkey and Persia) and from the Caucasus region; the music soundtrack often features the harsh and shrill winding melodies associated with Middle Eastern countries. The overall look is very busy with constant movement in the foregrounds and backgrounds of most scenes and the pace seems quite brisk though the shots are not short and the camera doesn’t move often.

Although “… Suram Fortress” isn’t as abstract as its 1969 predecessor “The Color of Pomegranates” and its plot and structure make it a more accessible film to general audiences, the narrative and visual style compete for attention so the film is tiring to watch. Parajanov’s distinctive style of filming recounts the legend in a way that brings out its dark magic. The legend itself harks back to a pre-Christian past of nature worship which included  placating the gods with human sacrifices and suggests even man-made inanimate objects such as buildings require the appropriate homage and rituals.

The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova): an idiosyncratic film that preserves the spirit and culture of Armenian people

Sergei Parajanov, “The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova)” (1969)

A true labour of love, this film is a meditation on the life of the Armenian poet who was born Harutyun Sayatyan and came to be known as Sayat-Nova (Persian for “King of Songs”). Since the film isn’t intended as an authentic blow-by-blow account of Sayat-Nova’s life, here is a quick rundown of his life (the information is from Wikipedia): born in Tbilisi in Georgia in 1712, Sayat-Nova acquired skills in writing poetry, singing and playing at least three types of stringed musical instrument. He entered the court of King Irakly II of Georgia as both full-time professional poet and diplomat and in his capacity as a dilopmat helped forge an alliance of Georgia, Armenia and Shirvan (a former state now part of Azerbaijan) against Persia. Sayat-Nova was expelled from the court for falling in love with his employer’s daughter and became a wandering troubadour. He entered the priesthood in 1759 and served in various monasteries, dying in Haghpat monastery in northern Armenia in 1795 when a foreign army invaded the building and killed the monks inside.

Knowing the background information will enable viewers to get a handle on an otherwise confusing series of visually gorgeous and lush tableaux showcasing Armenian culture and its steadfast devotion to Christianity which incorporates animal sacrifice. The film follows Sayat-Nova’s inner life  and impressions of the world around him based on his poetry and songs. The structure of the narrative is straightforward and organised into chronological episodes starting with the poet’s childhood and youth and continuing into his time at the royal court and later entry into monastic life. There are deviations into aspects of the poet’s inner life: his dreams, sexual desire and love for a woman and meditation on death. Each episode of Sayat-Nova’s outer and inner life is an opportunity for director Parajanov to highlight the culture, music and society of the poet’s time: to take one example, the poet’s childhood becomes a device to emphasise the importance of learning, education and religious study in Armenian society at the time. Scenes of the young Sayat-Nova surrounded by open books on roof-tops stress the value of books and their preservation. When the young budding poet is tired of studying books, he hangs around wool-dyers and the bath-house and again various tableaux show the dyers at work. boiling pots of dye and drenching wool into them, and various men relaxing and being scrubbed in the bath-house. These and all other tableaux of 18th-century Armenian life and culture in the film are often symbolic in ways that may be religious or hint at something darker. Demonstrating the importance of stock-breeding in 18th-century Armenia, animals appear in nearly all tableaux, culminating in one extraordinary scene in which the middle-aged poet is nearly swallowed in a flock of sheep filling up all the space and the corners of a church: there may be hints of pre-Christian nature worship in this particular scene as well. Viewers are invited to wonder at the richness and complexity of the culture and values inherent in these scenes and to meditate on what meanings, personal or otherwise, may exist within. Magic may be found and for some viewers the past itself may come alive with personal messages for them and them alone.

For this viewer at least the music soundtrack itself is amazing: it has many Middle Eastern influences, Christian choral elements and there are even hints of musique concrète: in one scene, men are working on part of a church with chisels and the noise they make is incorporated into the soundtrack rhythm. The film suggests a link between one musical instrument that Sayat-Nova plays and his sexual desire: in one scene the poet traces spirals around the body of a lute as if tracing spirals around a conch (already established as a sensual symbol of the female body). The implication is that much of Sayat-Nova’s poetry and music was inspired by personal lust and desire translated into inspiration. As though to drive the point home, the film provides an actual lust object of a muse played by Georgian actor Sofiko Chiaureli who handles five different roles in the film including the poet himself as a teenager. The very fact of a woman with flawless features playing an adolescent boy introduces a homo-eroticism into the movie which among other things got Parajanov in trouble with the Soviet government. Chiaureli and the other actors speak no dialogue and perform minimal actions with expressions that are either blank or at least gentle, kindly and serene. In maintaining a steady, calm composure throughout their scenes, not giving the least hint of injecting their own thoughts, feelings and misgivings into what they are doing, the actors demonstrate their skill.

Apart from necessary scene breaks there isn’t much editing and the camera rarely moves so each scene has a painterly quality and is a diorama of moving characters who appear two-dimensional in the way they may move from side to side. Close-ups of actors playing Sayat-Nova and those who influenced his work portray them as if they are religious icons.

For Western viewers the first half of the film is of more interest in showing more of the traditional folk culture and values of the Armenians and the pace is steady though not fast; the second half of the film which deals with Sayat-Nova’s inner life much more, with his dream and contemplation of death, is slower and more esoteric. As the poet revisits his childhood in parts, some scenes may confuse viewers with the sudden appearances of the same child actor who played Sayat-Nova early in the film. The last two episodes appear redundant as they revolve around death. In the second half of the movie also, there is a sense of aloneness and alienation: Sayat-Nova appears to be at odds with the monks in the monastery at times and doesn’t participate in the monks’ communal activities. At one point in the narrative, he even leaves the monastery to go and work among the common people. It is possible that Parajanov was projecting something of his own life and experiences in the “life” of Sayat-Nova as it plays out here.

With this and other movie-length films such as “The Legend of Suram Fortress” and “Ashik Kerib”, Parajanov was perhaps trying to capture the spiritual essence of the cultures around which the films revolve so that Armenians, Georgians and Azeris alike could see through the rituals, customs and traditions shown the reverence their ancestors had for God, their land and way of life. Why Parajanov did this must be seen in the context that he had to work in: the Soviet government did all it could to suppress religion and its rituals. In doing so, it was wiping out much of the cultures of non-Russian peoples under a multicultural façade that celebrated “folk cultures” as long as they were drained of any inner meaning. This may have been the intention as religion is often the basis of a people’s identity and culture, and without religion, people in the Soviet Union would have become easier to mould in the regime’s idea of the new Soviet citizen.

Not necessarily suited for a wide general audience due to the subject matter and its treatment but for those of open mind and who are interested in film as more than moving stories, this film is a worthwhile treat. It serves as an original and eccentric introduction to the culture and society of 18th-century Armenia through the life of one of its most famous sons.

Penelope: film’s beauty can’t compensate for static plot and characters

Ben Ferris, “Penelopa” aka “Penelope”  (2009)

Lovely to look at but beautiful, almost abstract scenes of nature and long circular panning shots that lovingly savour the object of their focus can’t compensate for a nothing story about a faithful wife moping for a long-lost husband who went off to the wars years ago. “Penelopa” imagines the interior life of Penelope, wife of Odysseus the king of Ithaca, who supported King Menelaus of Sparta in the Trojan wars. The wars last 10 years and for another 10 years Odysseus and his armies wander lost among the lands around the eastern Mediterranean and Black Seas. During this time Penelope puts up with loneliness, worry, bringing up any children she and Odysseus may have had and fending off a horde of suitors – in ancient Greek legend, there were 108 of them – vying for her hand in marriage so they can get theirs on her wealth and properties.

Of course in real life Penelope would’ve been busy enough managing her household and assets, acting as regent for an absent king and beating off the suitors with cunning, guile and a suite of bodyguards but “Penelopa” makes no reference to the life a noble woman might have led in the Age of Homer. Penelope (Natalie Finderle) spends her time lost in memories of the past and dreams about the future as represented by various rooms in her mansion. In one memory, Odysseus (Frano Maskovic) s is about to leave to journey to Troy. In one dream, Penelope finds the suitors have abused and killed all her ladies-in-waiting; in another dream, she strings her husband’s bow and kills off the suitors. The boundary between reality and Penelope’s inner world dissolved, our heroine resumes her patient wait for her husband.

The sense of isolation in the mansion’s gloomy rooms, the feeling of being trapped, memories of happier times, the desolation, longing and unfulfilled desires … all hang heavy throughout the film. A powerful sense of being marginal is conveyed by the costumes: the white draped robes of the women suggest funeral garb as opposed to the men’s colourful peasant costumes. A strict separation of the genders exists here though that might not have been the original intention: the women inhabit the world of home, the interior and seem not of this planet; the men are comfortable in their world of war, physical lusts and activity.

Long left-to-right panning shots that circle various characters, very little editing and a music soundtrack dominated by slow solo piano melodies create a languid pace and maintain a sense of introversion and contemplation. Passing of time is indicated by changes in nature: summer storms that occur early on are replaced by piles of autumn leaves over the forest floor. A dream-like quality is emphasised by characters fading in and out of scenes that might have come straight out of paintings.

In spite of its visual beauty, “Penelopa” leaves this viewer unimpressed: on the assumption that the climax is a dream, the plot cycles about with its characters remaining much the same at the end as at the beginning. Penelope will have her good days full of hope for Odysseus’s return and her bad days when she can barely get out of bed. Odysseus will continue to fade in and out of her dreams. The ladies-in-waiting continue to serve her loyally and the suitors to gorge on her hospitality. If the climax is interpreted as real then viewers may be relieved that Penelope has acted in a decisive way but then this passage becomes the only part of the film that departs from legend and the question may be asked why the rest of the film doesn’t. Penelope could be shown berating her absent spouse for abandoning her to life and holding conversations with the gods to demand why they’ve let Odysseus die and her live. In this way Penelope becomes a more active figure who can decide how she can spend her time without Odysseus: she can wait for him by moping or she can create an independent life for herself. Then we might have a great work of art that engages the mind in an enquiry on fate and the purpose of life, especially for women and children left behind by dead husbands and fathers. In ancient Greek society, such unfortunates suffered loss of status and faced an uncertain future if they didn’t belong to powerful families. Assumptions about the lives of men and women and their separate worlds, their different status and how they deal with their differences could have been challenged.

Additional questions about Penelope’s loyalty, her motivation for remaining faithful to Odysseus and whether viewers can learn something from her about faith, hope and inner resources when you are under siege from patriarchal social, economic and political institutions that allow intolerable situations such as the 108 lovestruck twats eating you out of house and home must remain unanswered.

Symbol (dir. Hatoshi Matsumoto): polished and slick slapstick comedy on nature of the universe

Hatoshi Matsumoto, “Symbol” (2009)

A slapstick comedy about interrelationships and the impact one person can have on events around the world, “Symbol” is the second full-length feature by Hatoshi Matsumoto who is best known in Japan as one-half of a long-running comedy act. The plot splits into two parallel stories that occur on opposite sides of the world, Japan and Mexico. In a small rural part of Mexico, a middle-aged man resignedly prepares for a tag-team wrestling match where he stars as Escargotman; his aged father and small son worry about his physical condition (chubby and pot-bellied) and his attitude in his pre-match routines (no hyping himself up or doing warm-up and limbering exercises). At the same time an unnamed man (Matsumoto himself – let’s call him M) wakes up in a large white-walled room with no furniture or windows in an unknown location in Japan. Images of cherubic male angels appear briefly and fade away, leaving behind only their genitalia on the walls and floor.

Throughout the film the action jumps back and forth between these two scenarios: the man in the room, pressing on the tiny penises, discovers that with each press a hole in a wall (not necessarily the same wall where the pressed penis is located) opens up and spits out an object he can use. Eventually the man works out that he can plan his escape from the room but the plan demands considerable lateral thinking as to how to open a hole up in a wall that leads to a locked door, get the key to that door and the right numbers to unlock the combination lock on the same door. Escargotman meanwhile prays at the family shrine, has his sister (a nun) drive him to the match venue, puts on his costume and mask and goes out to the ring. He waits on the side ropes while his partner gets beaten almost to a pulp by two more pumped-up wrestlers and then goes into the ring himself. In the audience Escargotman’s father and son anxiously sit and wonder if their hero will also get thrashed.

On their own each story isn’t remarkable in itself and viewers mightn’t feel much sympathy for Escargotman and the very real probability that Tequila Joe and his partner will humiliate him absolutely in front of his home crowd. As Escargotman hardly talks and shows little emotion, and on top of that his story shares screen-time with Matsumoto’s protagonist, there’s little tension building up to the wrestling match. M is essentially a comic-strip character in kidult pyjamas and kooky mop-top hairstyle who occasionally has something interesting to say but spends most of his time wordlessly trying out strategies that, comic strip-style, spring up in his head; the strategies work but only after much trial and error and temper tantrums for comic effect. It’s only when M finally escapes from the white room littered with objects and enters a second room where adult angels come and go and leave behind their genitals for our hero to press that the action becomes more interesting; every time he presses a penis, Escargotman lands a punch on his opponents. At this point the two stories become one and viewers start to realise that M isn’t just any ordinary man and the rooms he enters aren’t just any ordinary rooms on our particular plane of existence; each room represents a higher or deeper level of being and in each our man acquires more influence and power over the affairs of Earth. The tale of Escargotman becomes one of many on Earth that M can change. Naturally he insists on continuing to the next room beyond which the punchline awaits him.

The plot falls flat partly because Escargotman and his family are presented as flat though eccentric individuals and the wrestling match could be one of many in several parts of Mexico. For a quirky comedy the Mexican scenes have few quirks to them and become just stereotyped foreign exotic locations with stereotyped characters: Dad trying to make a living, Mum doing housework and nagging people all the time, Grandpa and Junior bonding together and anxious for Dad to prove himself a hero all over again and Aunty utters endless strings of expletive at her rundown truck. Although M helps Escargotman in his match, the influence is one-way only and this insinuates that Escargotman is a mere puppet. The implication behind that, though meant to be comic, is sad. Do Escargotman and his family exist merely for cheap laughs? (I guess so – don’t Third World nations and people exist to be pushed around?) This kind of philosophical black comedy has probably been done to death before and “Symbol” has nothing new to say on the matter.

In spite of the film’s polished presentation which includes a sharp, bright style of filming, computer animation and special effects that look real, and a steady pace driven by M’s desire for escape and meaning, “Symbol” ends up delivering a message that’s clever and slick but not profound. The movie’s worth is mainly in how it manipulates viewer expectations about the plot, its main character, the nature of his prison and how the Escargotman sub-plot ties into the main plot. You laugh at yourself for thinking that because you’re watching a movie, everything there has to make sense or connect with everything else in some way for a clear plot; but expected connections never materialise and unexpected ones do. As M goes from one maze to the next, viewers quickly realise he’s undertaking the metaphorical equivalent of human spiritual and intellectual evolution but whether he realises the importance of the journey himself – it looks as though enlightenment comes to him only during his swimming journey in which, sperm-like, he advances to “the light at the end of the tunnel” – is another matter entirely. Any thoughts he has about his journey, what he learns from it, and what awaits him at the end – and what he plans to do – are never revealed. The punchline could be more effective if M had broken the “fourth wall”, having done so a few times through the film already; he could just raise his finger and look quizzically at the audience before the camera cuts abruptly to the end credits.

“Symbol” is on a par with films like “Inception” and “eXisteNZ” which position the universe as similar to a videogame with various levels that require more skill and expertise in playing the game. The structure of the film into three parts “Education” where M teaches himself the strategies to leave the room, “Implementation” and “Future” suggests as much. Viewed this way, there’s no need for “Symbol” to say anything profound other than that a search for meaning in life is meaningless in itself and the universe may be one big cosmic joke. Films of this nature often seem superficial perhaps because if the universe is seen as a cosmic videogame, then there’s the inference that players enter the “game” on the understanding that they can’t change the “rules” of the game and free will only extends as far as the rules and parameters of the game permit. You as the player are no different than hamsters running on wheels in their cages, no matter how elaborate the wheels are or how far they go.

Nang Nak: ghost horror story of a love that transcends death and passage of time

A very moving and emotional story of a love that endures beyond death and time. A farmer fights in a war and leaves his pregnant wife at home. After a long recuperation from wounds and injuries, he returns to find his wife and newborn happy and safe … not knowing that they are actually ghosts. The village endeavours to tell him the truth but his wife’s ghost becomes angry and brings terror and death to the villagers.

Nonzee Nimibutr, “Nang Nak” (1999)

This Thai ghost horror story about a love that transcends death is very moving and tragic. The messages the film conveys about the fragility and impermanence of life, the Buddhist concept of the sin of attachment and refusal to accept change and flux, and the importance of community and the individual’s obligations to conform to its requirements, make “Nang Nak” complex and thoughtful. Set in rural Thailand in the late 1800’s, it follows the fortunes of a young married couple, Mak (Winai Kraibutr) and Nak (Intira Jaroenpura): Mak is required to fight for King and country and leaves his pregnant wife to work the rice farm on her own. He loses his friends in heavy fighting, suffers serious wounding himself and recuperates for a long time under the care of doctors and monks. After he recovers, the monks suggest to him that he should be ordained but Mak is anxious to go home and see his wife is all right. He travels back to the farm and sees Nak with their baby, both happy and healthy. Little does he knows what’s happened to Nak while he’s been away. Their village certainly knows; some of the villagers had to bury Nak and the newborn child some months ago …

Many viewers will come away with the impression of “Nang Nak” as a visually beautiful film with many shots of lush rainforest, grass and farming landscapes filmed under varied weather conditions at different times of the year. The emphasis on nature throughout the film serves many purposes: it shows how close humans and nature are; it demonstrates that the border between life and death, between the material and spiritual worlds, is more porous than we realise; it shows the passage of time and the changes it brings; and it is a distancing device separating Mak from the rest of the community, enabling Nak to deceive Mak, and also preventing viewers from identifying too closely with Mak and Nak’s dilemma. We know Mak has to learn the truth eventually and that Nak must go to the spirit world where she belongs. The village, led by its local monks, reclaim Mak and a senior abbot, Somtej Toh, advises Nak’s ghost to acknowledge her death and to stop terrorising and killing villagers who try to disabuse Mak of his delusions. Mak and Nak eventually realise they must separate and they promise each other that when the time comes for them to be reborn, they will be reborn in the same time period and become husband and wife again.

The film’s pace is leisurely and tension develops slowly but steadily. It picks up speed during the scene when some headstrong young men try to burn down Mak’s house and a storm generated by Nak’s ghost leads Mak away towards safety. The film’s pace bogs down during the ritual at Nak’s grave in which Somtej Toh soundlessly chants to Nak and for Western audiences, the emotionally intense farewell between Mak and Nak can come close to mawkishness. Why the chanting is soundless may be a puzzle to some: it may be that the intended audience (Thai people who know the legend) know the words anyway and they need not be repeated, or that Nimibutr might not have wanted to offend religious sensitivities by making them audible, especially as only part of the ritual might be used.

In spite of the simple and straightforward plot, practically given away by an unseen narrator at the beginning, the themes that flesh it out sit very lightly in the film. Kraibutr and Jaroenpura play their parts quite minimally, their actions and speech doing most of the emotional expression though Nak is very clingy and weepy where Western audiences might be concerned. The minimal acting fits in with the tenor of the film which treats its subject at a distance with the use of voice-over narration at the beginning and the end of the film, which clearly states that the story is a popular legend in Thailand.

Brief scenes in the film can be very graphic and violent – a scene in which Mak discovers a woman’s corpse being eaten by monitor lizards is especially horrific – but “Nang Nak” is well worth watching. Audiences interested in seeing how ordinary people in Thailand used to view life and how their lives were regulated by austere Theravada Buddhism and folk superstition together should see this film. It’s interesting to see how fear of the spirit world can be used by religious and communal authorities to pull people into line and at the same time preserve a person’s psychological health and well-being; a scene in the movie where some monks visit Mak at home clearly shows Mak to be suffering from psychological denial. The ritual at Nak’s grave can be interpreted as guiding Mak through a process of grieving and letting go, and enabling him to move to a new stage of life. While we may like to see Mak and Nak reunited, the passage of time and change itself dictate that this reunification is unhealthy for both of them.

Orlando: lavish and lovely lightweight film with nothing to say

Sally Potter, “Orlando” (1992)

Based on British writer Virginia Woolfe’s novel “Orlando: a Biography”, this film by Sally Potter is a flimsy work that fails to say anything meaningful about the status of men and women in English and British society over a number of centuries, though I presume that must have been Potter’s intention. The events in the title character’s life take place over a period spanning nearly 400 years, beginning with the twilight days of Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp), in whose employ Orlando (Tilda Swinton) is a courtier. His youthful alabaster beauty attracts the aged queen’s attention and he briefly becomes her lover. On her deathbed, she endows him and his heirs with considerable wealth – money, a large property with a castle – on the condition that he remain ever young in appearance and spirit. Orlando makes the promise and moreover keeps it: but this promise is to be both his pride and agony.

The film is cut into discrete chapters which structure and simplify Orlando’s presumably complicated life along the themes of death, love, poetry, politics, society, sex and birth (in that order) for the audience’s understanding but which have the effect of distancing and alienating viewers from the character’s experiences and his (later her) responses to them. You’d assume Orlando matures over time and becomes wise and understanding of human foibles but the character remains the same empty person throughout the film; if anything, incidents such as being jilted in love, seeing someone shot dead, undergoing a spontaneous sex change and losing her inheritance (and the adjustments Orlando must have had to make as a result) seem to distance Orlando from humanity rather than encourage her to appreciate the joys, tragedies and niggly irritations that come with being ageless and immortal.

It’s understandable that an early brief affair with a Russian princess, Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), and harassment from his fiancée make a very young Orlando disillusioned with women and their behaviour. This negative attitude stays with Orlando for the rest of his time as a male, to the extent that he gives his life over to poetry – until his own writing efforts are debunked – and then to politics which enables him to travel to Constantinople as British ambassador to the Ottomans and indulge in the sensual life-style of the Turkish aristocracy. After becoming female himself, Orlando doesn’t appear to reflect on how he has treated women in the past, both as individuals and as a group, even as a group of poets invited to a salon she hosts criticises women and the British courts seize her lands on the legal basis that women don’t have the right to own and manage property. A brief affair with an American idealist and adventurer Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) parallels the affair with Sasha – both lovers are wedded to loyalty to their country or ideals – yet Orlando makes no comparisons between these and with any other liaisons s/he’s had over the years.

Viewers are entitled to know how Orlando copes after being divested of her wealth and lands. Having led a life of luxury and entitlement over two centuries, enjoying travel and literature, how does Orlando survive without servants and having to earn her own living? The film doesn’t say: it simply flips from 1850, when Orlando is informed that she has lost her property, to some time in the 1940’s when she is running across a bomb-scarred landscape. At this point in “Orlando”, Potter could have examined the social and economic status of single women over that period, how it compared to the status of single men then, and what society thought of single women having to work at a time when a woman’s overall social / economic status and reputation were defined by her marital status. It’s likely Orlando had to be governess to children of a wealthy family or a music teacher to survive but viewers unfamiliar with novels like Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” or other literature written during the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) about upper and middle class women can only guess at how Orlando makes her way into the 20th century. There’s also nothing in “Orlando” about how the status of women varied in Britain over 400 years: women who lived in the 1500s – 1600s might have enjoyed a higher social and cultural status than their daughters in succeeding centuries. Nor is there any reference to efforts made by men and women in the late 19th / early 20th centuries to educate girls and women, and to get equal political and economic rights for both sexes. Yet it’s obvious by the end that Orlando has benefitted in some way from the advances made by other people on women’s behalf: she looks well-fed and happy with her lot and so does her child. Why so much of her life after 1850 and losing her wealth is omitted from the film is not just a puzzle, it’s an outrage. The implication that Potter isn’t interested in covering people’s lives if they aren’t wealthy or upper class comes to mind.

Looking more like a showcase of various historical dioramas of English / British culture and how sophisticated and multi-layered it must have been through the ages, with flamboyant costumes, lavish furnishings and the re-enactment of customs appropriate to each historical period, all of which was carefully researched, the film is a gorgeous visual treat. Some scenes are interesting if pretentious static tableaux in themselves and could be comments on the process and narrative function of making films.

The acting is very secondary to the plot and the historical settings with Swinton playing her part very minimally and her acting restricted to wide eyes, quizzical looks at the viewer and quips and asides that aren’t witty, cutting or illuminating: when Orlando comments on a performance of Shakespeare’s “Othello”, the remark is merely that it’s “a terrific play”. Though Swinton may be a good actor, she seems to have been cast for her particular colouring, red hair and alabaster skin, rather than for her talent and experience. Playing Orlando as a male, she is convincing in conveying male mannerisms – there’s a good scene where her actions are mirrored by a male actor and the likeness between the two in their behaviour is very striking – though perhaps, at the risk of parody, Swinton could have exaggerated her actions more in some scenes to be more masculine; likewise, in playing Orlando the woman, she could also have exaggerated some of her feminine behaviour, maybe even indulged in some “feminine wiles” (pleading, making big eyes) in her scenes with Shelmerdine.

Lovely to look at but under its golden sheen, “Orlando” is an empty vessel. I sense that it goes as far as it can in a narrow orbit and that’s it. Because if it did, it might be “controversial” and lots of people would be upset at some real gender politics, especially if and when expressed for comic effect. As a comedy, “Orlando” could have been a perfect vehicle to express uncomfortable opinions, make some observations about society that cut to the bone and question issues we take for granted with grace, wit and style.

(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “The Shooting Party” by Alan Bridges and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” by Peter Greenaway from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)

Shinobi – Heart under Blade: film could have been cut above other live-action films based on manga / anime

Ten Shimoyama, “Shinobi – Heart under Blade” (2005)

Based on a novel “The Kouga Ninja Scrolls” written by Futaro Yamada in the late 1950’s, this movie will appeal mainly to fans of the manga and anime, both called “Basilisk”, that are also based on the novel. Watch the movie closely though and you’ll find themes that will set you thinking: the age-old opposition between free will and predestination; the determinism that states that what you are and what you do are the products of your background and social history and you can never break away or overcome your past; the question of how people bred, born and trained for war can cope with peace; what is the point of war anyway; and how misfits and outsiders can be accepted in normal society.

The film is set in the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate that brought 260 years of peace to Japan. Ieyasu Tokugawa (Kazuo Kitamura) is wary of any threats to the country’s recent unification after 150 years of warfare (a period mined by Akira Kurosawa for insipiration for his films) and in particular is concerned about two clans, the Iga and Koga clans, based in two hidden mountain villages that have waged a vendetta against each other for centuries and are currently co-existing under an enforced 400-year peace. Tokugawa’s advisor cunningly sees a way of obliterating these two clans and wiping out any potential resistance to his master and suggests the clans demonstrate their prowess and powers at a ceremony by sending one representative warrior each. After this demonstration, Tokugawa announces that the enforced peace between the two clans is to be lifted and invites the clans to choose their five best ninja warriors to fight to the death. The one warrior to survive this all-in cat-fight will determine which of Tokugawa’s sons will succeed him as Shogun.

Unbeknownst to all, including their own people, it happens that Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri) of the Kogas and Oboro (Yukie Nakama) of the Igas fell in love some time ago and married secretly. As a result of Tokugawa’s invitation, both Gennosuke and Oboro find themselves nominated as members of their respective clans’ lists of the five best warriors and moreover, after the aged heads of the two clans foolishly whack each other into oblivion – illustrating that even in those days, when you were supposed to respect aged people for their wisdom, the reality was that being older didn’t necessarily mean being wiser – must lead their teams in this battle to end all battles. Gennosuke determines to find out from a senior noble Hattori Honzo (Yutaka Matsushige) what actual purpose this fight might serve as he suspects there is a hidden motive and he takes his warriors on a long trek on foot to Sumpu to meet this guy. He invites Oboro and her warriors to follow him and his team.

The bulk of the film is taken up by the Koga and Iga warriors taking one another out in ingenious and gruesome ways, their skills and superhuman powers on display though a number of characters don’t live long enough for the audience to fully appreciate the fighters’ abilities, until only Gennosuke and Oboro are left standing. In the meantime, the Shogun sends his armies to destroy the Koga and Iga villages. Realising their families and homes are doomed, Gennosuke and Oboro face a hard decision: one of them must sacrifice himself/herself and “lose” the battle of the clans.

The cinematography is gorgeous, emphasising nature and landscapes and in particular the passing of seasons, and this is the major highlight of the film, more so than the CGI-enhanced fighting scenes, some of which look surprisingly cheap. The overall idea with the emphasis on nature and its cycle is that all characters in this film are locked into an inescapable cosmic game which must be played out to its bitter end; the ninja warrior followers certainly feel this way and are either resigned to their fate or can’t see that they can be more than what they were bred, born and brought up to be.  They believe that without war, without a leader they can serve, their unique skills and abilities are as nothing and will wither and be forgotten. Only Gennosuke sees that there may be a place for the Igas and Kogas in a new world of peace; he questions the idea of being born for war and of wasting lives in violence, particularly in a scene where he defends himself from a horde of black-clad ninjas and slays them all, only to cry out in frustration at a situation where he is forced to kill for no good reason.

The colours of the film are worth mentioning: blue looks bluer, red looks redder and so on with all other colours, giving an intense look that is slightly unreal, even a bit cartoony, and demonstrating that, yes, we are in a world where real-life people like Ieyasu Tokugawa co-existed with people who are both human in their thoughts, feelings and shortcomings, and beyond human in their skills and abilities.

With the film’s emphasis on plot and pleasing the target audience (“Basilisk” manga / anime fans), acting and character development aren’t a great priority which is a pity; the characters of Oboro and Gennosuke at least could be more developed than they are so those viewers who don’t know the manga and anime film could sympathise with the lovers and feel their pain. The romance develops too quickly and next thing you know they’re married in a very brief ceremony (the groom hands his mother’s keepsake to the bride) and that’s it. From then on the action switches to the clans’ feud and how it will play out. The couple’s cardboard cut-out ninja companions are a mix of people who could be remote kin to the superheroes and supervillains of the DC Comics and Marvel Comics universes: Nenki Iga (Shun Ito) might be cousin to Wolverine of the X-Men team with his retractable iron claws and Kagero Koga (Tomoko Kurotani), the woman with poison for blood, has her analogy in Batman’s enemy Poison Ivy. Pity then that Nenki only has a couple of minutes to showcase his wares before Kagero finishes him off! The only ninja companions who get much to do and say are Koshirou (Mitsuki Koga) and Tenzen (Kippei Shiina): Tenzen especially voices his opinion that they, Kogas and Igas all, exist for war and have no place in a world of peace; significantly he chooses to die by kissing Kagero on the lips rather than rely on his symbiotic relationship with his pet internal tapeworm tenants which oblige him by cleaning and healing his wounds and injuries in super-quick time.

The plot is easy to follow and well-paced, progressing steadily to the surprise climax where the Shogun tells Oboro that her people and the Kogas are not normal people and can never be fully accepted into normal society because of their talents, and Oboro reacts by disabling herself of her unique power. This could be interpreted in different ways, not all of them happy: one interpretation could be that only by suppressing your uniqueness can you be accepted by others; another is that Oboro realises that to end their vendetta, the Igas and Kogas must join the rest of humanity and give up their warring ways by compromising their culture and talents. It’s a sad moment in a sense then when Oboro renounces her old life to spare her clan and Gennosuke’s clan from annihilation. The villagers may be saved and may be allowed to rejoin normal society and be able to resolve their differences with outside help and not have to resort to violence – but at what cost to their unique ways of life, their crafts and their arts?

The Romeo-and-Juliet plot may have been done to death many times already and there’s probably not much here that’s original and fresh but the film is a visually gorgeous and colourful feast for the eyes with lush forests and landscapes (a couple of waterfall scenes do look suspiciously unnatural, as though superimposed on a blank background behind a couple of actors) and the fight scenes and CGI effects are sometimes interesting if not always convincing. If the film had put more emphasis on developing interesting characters and elaborating on its themes, it could have been a cut above other live-action Japanese sword fantasy films based on manga and anime – ah, we’ll never know what could be.

Dororo: a fun escapist samurai-fusion film let down by cheap effects

Akihiko Shiota, “Dororo” (2006)

Based on the original manga by Astroboy creator, Osamu Tezuka, “Dororo” is a fun and entertaining escapist fantasy adventure about two wanderers, Hyakkimaru and Dororo, in a post-apocalyptic Japan. Curiously this Japan resembles pre-Tokugawa Japan in its culture and politics: the country has been split up and is ruled by warring clans each eager to wipe out the others and reunite the land by force and tyranny. Leader of one such clan, Daigo Kagemitsu (Kichi Nakai), is so keen to be the first Great Unifier since Ieyasu Tokugawa that he readily enters into a Faustian pact with a group of demons at a temple: the evil ones demand the body of his first-born son as payment. When the child is born, the demons seize and dismember him, leaving behind bare scraps of flesh held together by the baby’s spirit. Daigo Kagemitsu forces his wife to abandon the child and she does so tearfully, sending him off in a basket to drift down a fast-flowing river.

The baby is found by a sorcerer who painstakingly sets about reconstructing the tiny body using the remains of children killed in past wars together with various prostheses that include swords hidden in the boy’s new arms. Scenes of the reconstruction look amusingly (and intentionally) like their equivalents in old Frankenstein movies: the sorcerer distils the life essence of the dead children amid a collection of boiling potions in glass containers all joined together with transparent tubes and he uses magic that resembles electricity to animate the body parts. The boy, wrapped in bandages, floats in a soup of life-sustaining liquid. The process has to take a long time as the boy needs bigger parts and prostheses as he grows up. The sorcerer takes time to educate the boy as well. On reaching the age of 20, the boy (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is as ready as can be to take on the demons which is just as well as the sorcerer conveniently gives up the ghost and commands Hyakkimaru to destroy his life-work so that it should not fall into the wrong hands for evil purposes. Hyakkimaru burns the sorcerer’s house and life-work and begins his odyssey around Japan in search of the 48 demons who took his original body parts.

He acquires a side-kick, Dororo (Ko Shibasaki), who, on seeing him despatch a spider-demon in short and spectacular FX-enhanced order at a tavern, becomes curious about him and learns of his history from the time the sorcerer found him from a mysterious lute-player (Katsuo Nakamura) who happens to be the sorcerer’s friend. Dororo is a teenage thief, orphaned at an early age and commanded by her mother to suppress her gender identity by impersonating a boy; the girl desires revenge upon the Kagemitsus for destroying her family and community. Together Hyakkimaru and Dororo – incidentally, they acquire their names as nicknames, their real names being unknown – cross the length and breadth of a scenic and beautiful wild countryside (the movie having been filmed in New Zealand), killing the various demons who were part of the group that negotiated with Daigo Kagemitsu, in order to recover Hyakkimaru’s physical inheritance piece by piece … until they come to the lands of the Kagemitsus where Daigo Kagemitsu’s son and heir Tahomaru hears of Hyakkimaru’s arrival and seeks him out, inviting him to come and meet his parents …

The screenplay is better plotted than I expected: Hyakkimaru and Dororo could have spent the entire film chasing and killing rubber monsters and CGI ghouls with Dororo falling in love with Hyakkimaru along the way and Hyakkimaru unable to reciprocate until he has regained all his body parts. The showdown with Daigo Kagemitsu could have been shelved for a sequel but “Dororo” chooses to meet this head-on with a revelation that the demons handed Daigo Kagemitsu a dud deal, taking the first-born son’s physical being and going to town on that with some el-cheapo cheesy Godzilla cast-off costumes and computer effects that are irregular in quality, but most of all failing to deliver all of their client’s enemies to him in good time.  Yet Daigo K never appears to want his child back or at least take the contract to the relevant Department of Fair Trade. The movie can appear rather uneven: in its early scenes and the later scenes where Hyakkimaru confronts his father, the movie adopts a serious and drawn-out (maybe too drawn-out for fans of action) tone, and in other scenes where the two young ‘uns confront and kill demons, it’s quite flippant and the demons are more cartoonish than terrifying, but the screenplay holds up in spite of the changes in approach. I guess the emphasis is that the business of killing demons is secondary to Hyakkimaru discovering his true heritage and what it means to be human, and on how Dororo copes with finding out that the man she is following is the son of her family’s killers and whether her thirst for revenge is fulfilled.

Shibasaki and Tsumabuki do the best they can with their one-dimensional characters: Shibasaki’s Dororo comes across as a stock jester or clown character in the vein of similar characters in other Japanese samurai movies though the acting involved is substantial and Shibasaki does a convincing job throwing jokes, tantrums and tomboy bluster; while Tsumabuki’s Hyakkimaru has an uphill battle demonstrating an increasing capacity for feeling, empathy and humour when he has to acquire humanity bit by tiny bit. After all, by the time he’s resolved his issues with Dad, he’s only halfway to full humanity with 24 more jigsaw puzzle pieces to collect. No wonder then that he appears robotic throughout the film and only seems to become a bit human at the end. There are hints in “Dororo” that acquiring humanity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and that becoming human means becoming vulnerable to wounding, both physical, mental and emotional; it would have been good if Shiota had played up that angle more so that the whole business of tracking down the demons and killing them, one by one, just to get your body parts back, one by one, becomes more complicated on an existential level. Particularly also if you decide to bring some futuristic neo-Buddhist beliefs about the relationships between material desires and the nature of suffering into the picture: the more human you become, the more subject to desires you also become, and the more likely you will sin and cause other people to suffer.

Combining manga and various movie references, sci-fi, fantasy, martial arts, Japanese folk mythology and some old-fashioned story-telling with flashback sequences and a bit of philosophising about family members sticking together, “Dororo” juggles its influences and the genre-mixing fairly well to deliver a fun light-hearted ride at least. The major complaints I have are that the special effects and the CGI work aren’t of consistent quality and often look cheap, especially when the rest of the film looks good and sometimes even majestic, and the various demons Hyakkimaru meets tend to be animal and plant spirits rather than real demons straight out of people’s worst nightmares: we have the spider-demon, the tree-demon, the lizard-demon, the moth-demon, the fox-demons … all not terribly original and restricted in their roles as particular animals and plants. Sure, some can morph into humans but they don’t morph into anything else to make life more fun for themselves and extra difficult for everyone else. The futuristic world created for Hyakkimaru and Dororo should look more of a pastiche of different cultures, past and present, within and outside Japan, than it does. Armchair experts in mediaeval Japanese culture and history would recognise a great deal borrowed from Japan’s Sengoku warlord period (about 1450 – 1600) which preceded the Tokugawa shogunate; the film looks like one of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai pictures remade on a budget. The one part of the film that’s truly cosmopolitan and outstanding is the music soundtrack which features considerable bluesy-sounding flamenco-style guitar music.

If a sequel to “Dororo” gets off the ground, I’d expect a bit more character development and maybe some delayed teenage angst on Hyakkimaru’s part as he acquires more human feelings and emotions, and maybe questions whether it’s really worth his while getting all his body parts back. Reading some of the comments on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) though, I found one which stated an sequel is not likely as the estate of Osamu Tezuka does not like the film and has refused permission for sequels. I have never seen the manga but apparently the film makes drastic changes to the original manga story – to take two examples, the manga Dororo is a young preteen boy, and the tone of the manga itself is more serious than that of the film – and possibly it is changes such as these that the estate objects to. For the time being anyway, manga fans and the general public alike can enjoy the film as a post-modern samurai-fusion flick and if some people are inspired to read the original manga, that will be a bonus.

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?

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

Wim Wenders, “Wings of Desire” (1987)

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

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

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

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

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

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