The Embrace of the Serpent: a film condemning European colonialism and its effects also carrying a message of reconciliation and hope

Ciro Guerra, “The Embrace of the Serpent / El Abrazo de la Serpiente” (2015)

Filmed on location in the Amazon rainforest region, this remarkable film features two parallel stories that involve the shaman Karamakate set 30 years apart. In the earlier story, German explorer / ethnographer Theo Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), accompanied by man-servant Manduca (Yauenku Migue), is ailing from a severe illness and needs treatment and a cure; he is brought to the young Karamakate (Niblio Torres) who initially declines to help as he distrusts Europeans for having destroyed his people and their culture. After Theo tells the shaman that he has seen some of his people and can take him to them, K agrees to go with him and Manduca and lead them to the yakruna plant that will apparently cure Theo. Theo promises to abide by various prohibitions that the shaman places on him. The threesome endure a testy relationship while sailing on the Amazon due to K’s distrust of Manduca for abandoning his culture for that of European ways and of Theo for being white. Manduca loyally defends Theo who bought his freedom from a rubber plantation owner. On their journey, the trio encounter a mission run by a lone priest for abandoned orphans; the priest has forbidden the children from using their own languages and runs a severe religious Christian regime that includes physical punishment.

Years later, American botanist Richard Evans (Brionne Davis), using an English translation of Theo’s published notes, posted to Germany by Manduca after the German died in the rainforest, comes to the Amazon to find Karamakate. Evans’ real purpose is to find disease-free rubber trees for the US, since the usual Southeast Asian sources of rubber have been overtaken by Japan during the Second World War; but he conceals this from Karamakate, telling the shaman he is interested in finding the plant that healed Theo for its medicinal qualities.

Through both stories the film is a powerful exploration of the extent to which European culture has devastated native Amazon cultures and peoples with the consequent loss of native knowledge and human connections with nature. In both stories, Theo and Richard must learn to divest themselves of material possessions and Western assumptions and patterns of thinking, and to listen to and follow their inner voices, and rediscover their inner lives and worlds through dreaming; only by doing so can they find what they have been truly seeking, which is the nature of reality and finding their true selves and place in the cosmos. Karamakate for his part must also learn what his true purpose is as the lone survivor of his people and the sole repository of all their knowledge and history. Just as the white men must learn that the yakruna plant cannot be abused for profit or grown in ways that abuse its sacred properties, so Karamakate is led on his own spiritual path and release from the emptiness he has felt for allowing his anger at European and mestizo abuse of the yakruna plant to overcome him and cause Theo’s death 30 years earlier. He comes to realise his knowledge isn’t just for his own people but is for the wider world beyond that needs it.

The monochrome look of the film gives it a surreal quality and the exquisite editing enables the narrative to shift back and forwards in time; this allows the film also to track the fortunes of the mission orphans over time. The lone priest who abused the orphans physically is replaced by a crazed self-appointed messiah. In this the film makes a statement about the effect that cultural genocide has had on Amazon peoples and contrasts the religious extremism encouraged by self-styled Christian leaders with the mystical journeys of Theo, Richard and Karamakate. The time shifts also enable viewers to experience time and Karamakate’s own experiences in particular as circular, highlighting the shaman’s own redemption and his frailties as a human.

The climax of the film is filmed in colour and seems a bit flat and disappointing but this is a minor quibble compared with the rest of the film. It is a strong and devastating critique of European colonialism and the capitalist quest to commodify and exploit the natural world for profit, and also shows a way in which all humans can find reconnection with the world of nature and the spirit world. Ultimately this is a film of redemption, reconciliation and hope.

Allegro Non Troppo: a suite of animation shorts of breath-taking imagination and originality, and much food for thought

Bruno Bozzetto, “Allegro Non Troppo” (1976)

A spoof of and tribute to Walt Disney’s famous “Fantasia” film, “Allegro Non Troppo” is noteworthy mainly for its six animation shorts set to short works of famous composers in Western formal compositional music linked by a live-action narrative of slapstick comedy. The black-and-white live-action sequences are insincere, painful to watch and utterly forgettable; they feature dull and dated comedy skits that mock the elderly female characters in them and viewers can dispense with these interludes. The animation sequences range from surreal and playful to almost realistic and painful, with plenty of room for director Bozzetto to give his views on human evolution, the nature of love and the effects of materialism, conformity, capitalism and industrialisation on human societies and possibly the future of humanity itself.

Of the various animated sketches, the best ones are those attached to Jean Sibelius’ “Val Triste”, in which an aged cat lingering about a ruined mansion remembers the comfortable life he had in the building; to Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird”, in which a snake fails to persuade Adam and Eve to taste the forbidden fruit it offers and as punishment must experience all the ills of capitalist society; and to Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”, detailing the evolution of life from primitive one-cell origins to the triumph of humanity. The animation is highly imaginative and inspired, frequently bizarre and mind-blowing, and always colourful. Each sketch has its own style of animation and colouring. The music is not bad though the choice of pieces might leave something to be desired as not all the music is equally good and the animated pieces, taking their cues from the music, are also uneven.

The Sibelius sequence is very moving and tragic: the cat tries to remember the humans who cared for it, and the warmth of the mansion in its former glory – but memory eventually fades and the cat also fades with it. Finally what remains of the mansion is destroyed by a wrecking ball. The Vivaldi piece (featuring “Concerto in C major for 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, Strings and Continuo RV 559”) is light-hearted and bright in colour, yet sympathetic to the tiny bee inconvenienced by the two large humans romping and making love in her garden.

While the animation can be stunning, and some of the messages contained within individual segments invite thoughtful examination, the film as a whole is very uneven and the mockery in the live-action sequences is unnecessarily cruel and may appear alien and strange to contemporary audiences.

 

Pony: a dark little story about the loss of innocence in a banal setting

Dony Permedi, “Pony” (2006)

“Pony” is a short animated film made by Permedi as an undergraduate college project with the subversions of everyday life and student black humour one might expect of people in their late adolescence / early adulthood. A young girl aged about 8 or 9 years runs out of the house one fine morning to celebrate her birthday with her friends. She discovers a surprise behind the tree in the backyard: it’s a colourful critter called Pony. He’s a co-operative friend too, if one overlooks his tendency to bite the heads off little girls’ dolls. The girl and Pony play around for a while and ignore her friends who have started to arrive for the birthday party. Later in the day, the girl goes looking for Pony and discovers to her horror that he’s dangling from a branch by a rope and her friends are preparing to hit it with a baseball bat. Bang, bang! – Pony’s guts spill out and the kids start grabbing bits and pieces of him. One child hands a bloody part to the girl and she eats it … The scales fall from her eyes and she realises she’s eating a sweet and Pony has been a piñata the whole time. She looks at her friends anew and all she sees are other piñatas … so she picks up the baseball bat and goes after them …

It becomes obvious that the birthday party and the character of Pony represent aspects of a rite of passage in which the girl passes from the world of infancy and innocence into another world where life is not so kind and friendly, the difference between good and evil is not well defined, and one constantly has to be on guard against friends who too easily become enemies, and against enemies who pretend to be your friends. Fantasy and reality are not easily separated. In this world of ambiguities, where the law of the concrete jungle reigns and folks live by dog-eat-dog rules, violence becomes a first resort rather than the last option. Apart from the symbolism, the ideas and the themes they may represent in “Pony” are not well developed and it may be that Permedi is trying to express more than he can actually say in this short. The characters are too undeveloped and stereotyped and the birthday party context perhaps too banal and flimsy to carry the rite-of-passage theme and how it affects one particular individual with devastating consequences.

Permedi would be well advised to find a writing collaborator who can express his ideas and aims in a story-telling form while he concentrates on creating credible animated characters and worlds.

Spirited Away: a lavish film representing the peak of Studio Ghibli’s creativity and the start of its decline

Hayao Miyazaki, “Spirited Away” (2001)

In many ways, “Spirited Away” represents the peak of Studio Ghibli’s creativity and innovation, and the beginning of its decline as a creator of imaginative anime films aimed at children and families. Technically the film cannot be faulted and its production values are very high, colourful and lavish, even overdone. Its narrative is easy to follow and its theme of a young girl who learns responsibility and caring for others, and who matures a great deal during her Alice-in-Wonderland adventures, will be apparent to most people. There is a definite message about caring for the natural environment and a condemnation of capitalist society and the ways in which it corrupts people with easy wealth. At the same time, I feel that the film lacks zest and a carefree quality that was present in earlier Studio Ghibli films like “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, and that the plot’s resolution gives it a suffocating circular hermetic quality and condemns its young heroine Chihiro to living in a world that will deny her further spiritual and moral development.

Chihiro is delivered unexpectedly into the fantasy world by her parents when they lose their way to their new home in a new semi-rural community and stop at the wall of what they believe is a theme park. The three enter the place and the parents come across a sumptuous buffet which they tuck into without hesitation. The adults are turned into pigs and Chihiro is forced to appeal to strangers such as a young boy called Haku within the fortress for help. The fortress is actually a bath-house for spirits and to survive, Chihiro has to apply for a job there. Her employer is the witch Yubaba who steals the girl’s name on the contract and forces her to answer to the name of Sen. Sen is forced to undertake the toughest and dirtiest jobs such as helping a filthy river god to bath and divest itself of accumulated pollution and junk (with hilarious results) but almost comes a cropper when she allows a mysterious spirit called No Face to enter the bath-house and cause havoc and chaos when it tries to buy her affections with gold it conjures up and instead turns into a voracious monster gobbling up food and bath-house staff alike.

By chance and through the kindness of the other bath-house employees, Sen learns that Yubaba has Haku under an evil spell and she breaks the spell by returning a stolen gold seal to Yubaba’s kindly identical twin sister Zeniba. To do this, she has to travel all day and all night by train over a vast sea with No Face who has sobered up from his manic eating and vomiting spree. She helps Yubaba’s spoilt sumo-wrestler baby as well and the baby becomes an ally of hers. Through her ordeals and adventures, Sen learns love and discovers the true nature of Haku, and together they work to break her contract with Yubaba and force Yubaba to restore her true name and release her parents from their porcine forms before they are sent to the abattoir.

Some parts of the plot are a bit wonky – it’s never clear as to why Chihiro’s parents start munching away on food in an apparently abandoned restaurant, and Chihiro’s own transformation from spoilt brat to dependable young woman, and the admiration and respect she gains as a result from the other bath-house workers, is a bit too speedy for my liking – but the plot is clear enough and proceeds leisurely and gracefully from start to finish. Japanese cultural tradition is laid very thickly and the nostalgia that Miyazaki feels for a lost pre-1867 world is very real. Haku’s transformation from boy to dragon and back again hints at a shamanist past in Japan. Quirky Japanese humour is evident in such characters as the giant crybaby sumo-wrestler child and the guide that takes Chihiro and No Face to Zeniba’s cottage.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the film’s richly layered style, the didactic messages it delivers and its conservative view of the world, “Spirited Away” seems very overwrought for a story that probably needs a more minimalist style. The initial shock of seeing the huge bath-house and the unusual clients it attracts gives way to the mundane realisation that Yubaba’s workers are as much exploited and trapped as Chihiro and Haku are – yet in all the shenanigans the two youngsters are forced to undergo, there’s no indication that they want to or try to help the workers overthrow their tyrannical employer and institute a form of workers’ democracy. Perhaps it’s too much to expect a 10-year-old girl and an equally young water spirit (not to mention all the other nature spirits who patronise the bath-house) to know anything much about socialism and lead a revolution that will throw out Yubaba and force her either to treat the workers fairly or to go into exile. This means that at the end of the film, Chihiro is reunited with two adults who learn nothing from their error and are completely oblivious to their daughter’s new ways, and it would seem that the bath-house will continue to labour under Yubaba’s capricious rule. Chihiro and Haku part in a way that suggests they will never see each other again, though Haku may continue to think about the girl and treasure his memories of her.

The film perhaps would have worked better if Chihiro and Haku had been older, and a real love story allowed to develop between the two. The two by their example would have inspired the bath-house workers to rise up against Yubaba and send her packing. Chihiro’s parents would have been allowed to make amends for their greed and everyone would have learned something about the nature of the capitalist society that encourages selfishness, undermines loyalty and co-operation, and ultimately corrodes traditional Japanese values and customs. The ending could have been … well, open-ended, with Chihiro and her parents on the brink of choosing whether to return to their humdrum suburban lives working for The Man or remain in a vivid world that promises real values and a more authentic way of living and being.

The Hawks and the Sparrows: a rambling road movie enquiry into the social and political conflicts of Italian society in the 1960s

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Hawks and the Sparrows / Uccellacci e Uccellini” (1966)

A bit confusing and rambling, this road movie about a father and his son roaming aimlessly through Italy is an investigation of the social and political conflicts that threaten to pull 1960s-period Italian society apart, in particular the conflicts between the Roman Catholic Church and modern secular society at the time, and the conflicts between landowners and working-class rural folk. The Italian comedian Toto and Ninetto Davoli play the father Innocenti Toto and son Ninetto who have several unusual adventures on their walking journey. Along the way they are joined by a talking raven (voiced by Francesco Leonetti) who represents a left-wing intellectual tradition strong on rational thinking and who comments on the men’s backgrounds and the adventures they have taken or are about to take.

First up, the raven tells the men a fable about two mediaeval monks (Toto and Davoli) sent out by St Francis of Assisi to convince hawks and sparrows to accept God in their lives and live with love. This requires an extreme ascetic life-style lasting well over a year but finally the two monks master the languages of the birds and broadcast the Gospel among them. Yet no matter how earnestly they teach the birds, the birds are still at the mercy of their instincts and habits, the hawk still kills the sparrow for food, and St Francis pressures the two monks to try harder to convince the birds to overcome their natures and live in peace.

The fable takes up about half the film’s running time and the other stories that follow are not nearly so deep or complex. In two scenes, Toto and Ninetto threaten to evict a poverty-stricken family from their farmhouse if the money the mother owes the two men is not forthcoming, and Toto and Ninetto themselves are threatened when they appeal to their landlord to have mercy and waive their debts and the landlord refuses. The duo also meet a travelling troupe of actors representing minority groups in Italy and watch the troupe perform a play that is forced to end when one of the actors goes into labour and must deliver her baby. Not long after Toto and Ninetto witness the baby’s birth, they are caught up in crowds following the cofin of a local Italian celebrity figure. Later the two men take turns dallying with a prostitute (Femi Benussi) before being overcome by hunger and greed while looking at the raven …

The film is in neo-realist style, using non-actors to play most roles, and with some very stunning cinematography work showing off landscapes and featuring close-ups of people’s rugged faces. Toto and Davoli are fine actors just as much at home with Marxist notions on the nature of class-based struggle and the clash of Marxist ideology, Roman Catholic dogma and human nature, as they are with slapstick humour that owes a debt to old Charlie Chaplin silent films. The film flows smoothly and well, with each skit blending seamlessly into the next with no break in pace, mood or character.

It does try to say a lot within its 88 minutes, maybe too much for its length and road-movie fantasy narrative. Most contemporary Western viewers would be confused by the way Pasolini sets out the Marxist premise only to subvert it with examples of human greed. Pasolini fails to appreciate that much human greed is itself culturally shaped by societies and cultures that exalt greed, individual competition or low animal cunning that takes advantage of others or manipulates them as worthwhile values. The adventures of Toto and Ninetto might best have been served in a mini-series format that could have explored and explained in more depth and detail, at a level and pace suited to mainstream audiences, Marxist philosophy and its aims, and how it might adapt to or change the Italian society and culture of Pasolini’s times.

The Image: a tiny study of mental crisis, homoeroticism and creepy atmosphere sets a template for David Bowie’s future career

Michael Armstrong, “The Image” (1967)

Notable mainly for being singer and sometime actor David Bowie’ first film role, this 14-minute horror short is an eerie surrealist piece. With not much story to speak of, and including some very hokey horror-movie stereotypes, this film is big on atmosphere and suggestions of mental breakdown and homoeroticism. An painter (Michael Byrne) working on a portrait in an apparently abandoned house becomes unnerved when the subject of the portrait, a young man (Bowie), appears to him outside the window, on the stairs and in other parts of the house. The apparition looks and feels so real that the painter makes numerous attempts to kill him, only to discover that the ghost keeps returning again and again. Despairing that he cannot rid himself of the ghost, the painter decides instead to kill off his painting but the effect on him is catastrophic.

Not much acting talent was required from its tiny cast but Bowie is effective at portraying the mystery ghost, thanks to having studied mime with Lindsay Kemp. Where the film excels is in creating an atmosphere of heightened tension throughout the house with stills of windows, the long staircase with rubbish all over it, the locked door and various empty rooms. Filming in black-and-white film helps impart the necessary murky, shadowy look. There may be influences from German Expressionism and Alfred Hitchcock, especially in the prominence of the long staircase in some scenes. The pacing and quick editing of shots of the painting and of the ghost, from one to the other and back again and again, are well done and suggest an imminent mental crisis for the painter.

The insinuations of mental breakdown, the homoerotic attraction between the painter and the young man whom the painter knew before the latter’s death (which is hinted at in the painter’s confrontations with the ghost), the violence (not too explicit) and the all-enveloping creepy atmosphere and isolation are communicated well, and I guess that’s really all that can be said in the film’s favour.

The film was made in the same year that David Bowie released his first album which was self-titled and both film and album quickly sank without trace. Yet the character that Bowie plays in “The Image”, with its ethereal quality featuring hints of dark and strange sexuality and a frisson of violence, was to inform other personae he adopted throughout his musical and acting career.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: mocking the middle classes for their hypocrisy, sense of entitlement and shallow values

Luis Buñuel, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie / Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie” (1972)

This comedy-of-manners film about six people who constantly make arrangements to have dinner together but never really succeed in doing so thanks to random coincidences, misunderstandings and their own faults and misdeeds is a vehicle for director Buñuel to mock the French middle class for its hypocrisies, empty rituals and shallow values in which style and surface sheen triumph over seedy and sterile substance. The narrative relies on a repeating social ritual – three couples from the upper middle class trying to meet for dinner several times and failing every time in different ways – so that the film becomes no more than a series of absurdist Pythonesque comedy sketches. Initially the film is bright and straightforward as the dinner guests meet but as the movie continues, it becomes increasingly darker, unsettling, paranoiac, and ends up being trapped in banality and trivia, reflecting the sordid nature of its main characters and the society they move in.

The ensemble cast (Stéphane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Paul Frankeur, Bulle Ogier, Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig) acquits itself speedily and efficiently if blandly; they represent particular aspects of the French bourgeoisie that Buñuel found especially irksome or ripe for satire. Audran and Cassel’s married couple snub a man dressed as a working-class gardener and turn him away, but when he returns dressed in his bishop’s garb, they fawn and grovel before him. Seyrig and Frankeur may look like the perfect married couple but Seyrig’s character is secretly having an affair with Rey’s ambassador of the Republic of Miranda. The ambassador is highly regarded in French polite society but on the side he is running a cocaine ring with Frankeur and Cassel’s characters, and he deals with a would-be student Marxist rebel assassin by arranging for her to be kidnapped and “disappeared”. We learn much more about the kind of corrupt Third World hell-hole that the Republic of Miranda is in someone’s nightmare in which a cocktail party given by an army colonel goes disastrously wrong.

Buñuel can’t resist taking pot-shots at the Roman Catholic Church by including a sub-plot (which might not sit easily with viewers) in which a kindly priest hears a confession from a dying man. The aged man confesses that, decades ago, he murdered a couple and left their child an orphan. The priest then reveals to the man that he was that orphan. Nevertheless he forgives the man his sins on the authority of God and Christ Jesus … then calmly walks over to where a loaded rifle is resting against a wall. While this sub-plot is an amusing comment on the hypocrisy of the RCC and shows that the priest is human after all, it adds very little to the overall narrative.

There are other gags in the film that have no bearing on the narrative other than to poke fun at authority generally and authority figures in particular. Two soldiers talk about their childhood or their dream of death, and two police officers chat about how their superior tortured a student prisoner and ended up assassinated. Frequently the gags take the form of dreams and dreams within dreams, to the extent that the second half of the film all but groans with them and the thin line between fantasy and reality disappears. From this point on, the film becomes very repetitive and turns on trivia and banality, for good reason: the dreams that the dinner guests and various others have reveal their fears and neuroses, their selfishness and lack of care and consideration for others, and ultimately their thuggishness, all hidden under a veneer of discretion and politeness.

There are many highlights in the film but probably the best ones are the cocktail party scene during which the ambassador tries in vain to fend off uncomfortable questions about his country’s corruption, high crime rate and harbouring of Nazi war criminals, and an earlier scene in which a bunch of soldiers talk about smoking marijuana and our drug-running dinner guests then express disgust at the prevalence of marijuana use in the army. The scene in which the dinner guests sit down at a table, only to be exposed to an opera audience who boo at them, is a surreal high point that suggests these characters cannot withstand open scrutiny and crumple up easily if their crimes and peccadilloes were to be exposed publicly.

The film’s technical qualities are highly commended; the presentation is bright and realist, hiding the fact that this is an absurdist film in which dreams seem more real than reality. The soundtrack is important too, with background white noise coming to the fore at critical moments when characters are talking to one another. Randomness as a long-running motif plays a significant role in advancing the narrative and its repetitions.

At the end of the film, the dinner guests are still wandering about in their quest for the perfect dinner party and it’s at this point that one questions whether, for all their wealth, power and influence over elites, that they can get out of jail with impunity, these unhappy people have much free will when their desires are constantly frustrated due to their own indulgent flaws and stupidity, their obsession with a false social propriety, and things happening out of the blue as a consequence of past decisions they made or of their thoughtlessness and belief that they are special and deserving of aristocratic privilege. One almost feels pity for these people who seem to be permanently trapped in an invisible hell of their own making. The ambassador’s dream about himself and his friends being mown down by a bunch of terrorists and someone else’s earlier dream about the six being imprisoned for drug-running offences suggest that there are forces gradually and relentlessly closing in on the dinner guests and their world, and that they will get their comeuppance. Only then might they discover freedom.

The Phantom of Liberty: a snapshot of modern life where social conventions and hypocrisy limit personal freedom and responsibility

Luis Buñuel, “The Phantom of Liberty / Le Fantôme de la Liberté” (1974)

This film might be seen as a snapshot in the life of modern France as it appeared to  Luis Buñuel, with all its bourgeois hypocrisies and contradictions. “The Phantom of Liberty” is a string of loosely linked episodes and sight-gags that celebrate chance and randomness while mocking social institutions, conventional behaviours and etiquette, and taboos such as necrophilia, sadomasochism, incest and paedophilia. For this film, Bunuel assembled an ensemble cast in which no one actor stands out – though I did recognise Michel Lonsdale from an old James Bond movie of years past – and everyone plays his or her part perfectly with completely straight faces.

The film’s loose narrative wends its way smoothly from one tableau to the next. A stranger offers photographs to two young girls in a public playground and the kiddies promptly hand them over to their parents who are shocked at the pictures – which turn out to be scenes of famous architecture around the world. The children’s father then visits his doctor about strange dreams he’s had and offers a letter given him in one dream as proof. The doctor’s nurse excuses herself to drive into the countryside to visit a sick father; on the way she stops at an inn where some Carmelite monks offer prayers for the elderly man and then hang around in her room playing cards, drinking alcohol and smoking excessively as though they were Mafia gangsters. Next day the nurse gives a lift to a police academy lecturer who later has to deal with a class of unruly gendarmes behaving like bored high school students. The lecturer drones on about the relativity of laws and customs, and recounts the time he went to a dinner party where all the guests sat on toilets around the dinner table and hungry people retire to private rooms to eat meals. Later on in the film, a sniper kills various people around Paris, is arrested and tried for murder, and sentenced to death; he leaves the courtroom by himself and signs autographs for eager women. A couple report the disappearance of their daughter to the police and the police treat the couple’s statements seriously – all while the child is in plain sight of everyone at the police station.

The film forces people to think very deeply about how much influence social conventions and expectations, coincidence and chance have on our minds and behaviour, and thus how they and their interactions limit our ability to think and act freely, and in some situations to act morally (even though our minds might rebel at having to act immorally). Particular scenes show how the things we take for granted can be bizarre if they are reversed, as in the scene where the dinner guests sit on the toilets while talking crap at the table yet have to eat in private. A very humorous and quite creepy scene in which a police commissioner is caught desecrating his family burial vault to find an apparently revenant sister and brought before another man in his job, and the two of them then discussing and carrying out an attack on political activists noisily campaigning against democracy, has the power to chill. This scene suggests that the functions of a job (in this case, that of a police commissioner), its status within a hierarchy and the attendant reputation and traditions reduce complex individuals to mere cogs in a machine. All the comedy sketches, no matter how far-fetched they are, are plausible in some way: the police can be just as disorderly and unruly as the crooks they apprehend (largely because police and crooks are members of the same society after all, and were it not for some chance occurrence, a police officer could have ended up on the wrong side of the law) and the sketch with the girl trying to convince her parents and the police that she has not disappeared may tell us something profound about how children are often ignored by adults. Social taboos like incest and young men falling in love with elderly women may be played for laughs yet at the same time force people to question the nature of these taboos, why they exist and how they are perpetuated.

The movie moves at a fast pace and the characters are drawn in such a way that they clearly represent social or occupational stereotypes. The cinematography is beautifully done in a way that makes the various sub-plots look like moving tableaux. The direction is deft and flows very smoothly: this is important for a film where there’s no clear traditional story-telling narrative and chance incidents linking two sub-plots must not look contrived.

The Handmaid’s Tale: a film affected by its own demonstration of how repressive societies suck the life out of whatever they touch

Volker Schlöndorff, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1990)

Based on the dystopian novel by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale” as realised by Volker Schlöndorff is a very pedestrian and (in spite of the use of bright colours) very colourless work. The film can be read as a satire on contemporary American society and the political and social trends that Atwood discerned within that are likely to affect women over the next 50 years.

In the near future, the United States is rent by political and social chaos which is ended by a putsch carried out by Christian fundamentalist groups who impose their notions of utopia upon a population devastated by decades of war, violence, severe pollution and radioactivity. 99% of women have been rendered infertile by the pollution and the remaining 1% who are found to be fertile are frog-marched into special institutions and where they are brainwashed and prepped into becoming child-bearing “handmaids” to the nation’s elites. One such woman is Offred (Natasha Richardson) who is caught by security forces while trying to escape the theocracy with her husband and daughter to Canada. The husband is shot dead and the daughter is either taken away from her or abandoned. Back in the US, or rather, the new Republic of Gilead, Offred is prepared by so-called “aunts” in an institution resembling a mix of girls’ boarding school, Magdalene laundry and nunnery for her role, and is then sent off to the nation’s senior commander (Robert Duvall) and his wife Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway) to bear a child for them. The film then follows Offred’s life serving the couple in a tightly controlled and repressive setting where all women have been reduced to five basic categories of neoconservative Western female stereotypes – wife, walking womb, servant, aunt (a sort of prim spinsterish combination of nun and school-teacher) and whore-ish outsider – and any transgression that threatens the hierarchy results in capital punishment by hanging.

Offred comes into contact with a group of rebels called the Mayday group, represented by the commander’s chauffeur Nick (Aidan Quinn) with whom she falls in love, and another handmaid. She is drawn into their plot to assassinate the commander and is given the murder weapon. If she does as they want her to – and needlessly to say, her life will be in danger if she does – will they be able to save her from the Republic’s wrath and vengeful punishment? Will they be able to find her daughter and reunite them both? How will she, her daughter and Nick survive in a world completely dominated by the Republic?

The society portrayed in the film looks like an eclectic mix of wartime Nazi Germany and hyper-sanitised 1950s upper-class America, due perhaps to the director’s German background and the ideas and inspirations he brought. Schlöndorff does a good job of detailing the hierarchical and insular nature of the futuristic theocratic fascist society as experienced by the women who live in it. The parallel the German director draws between Nazi Germany and the future Christian fundamentalist theocracy done American-style is done very well, though perhaps cautiously. At the risk of turning the film into a camp kitsch parody, I would say that the film could have gone much further in aligning aspects of US Christian fundamentalism and Nazi German attitudes towards the role of women in society, and finding rich material to include, even if just as background scenery. On the other hand, we do not learn much about the men who serve this society and the social layers that divide them. Neither do we learn much about the women who work as servants and why they submit in the way they do. On the other hand, the ways in which women are exploited and set against one another, so that they can never overcome their class differences and unite and join their brothers in challenging the elites and overthrowing them, are delineated very well and chillingly so in one scene of mob violence instigated by the ruling elites. Offred is pressed by her training and circumstances to become completely passive and emotionally blank in order to survive. There is irony in that in being forced to bear children for others, Offred must become spiritually sterile.

By necessity, the acting is very wooden and somehow forced; the actors play characters whose individuality has been taken away from them and who can only behave in stereotyped ways appropriate to their social status. Even the elites suffer under the system: the infertile Serena Joy pins her hopes on Offred conceiving a child with her husband, so that her life can have meaning and she regains some sort of identity (before the Republic of Gilead, she was a public celebrity); and her husband chafes in his loveless marriage, seeking escape by playing board games with Offred and taking her to secret evening entertainments where prostitutes perform risqué dances. Audiences will not feel much sympathy for the characters except perhaps for Offred who hopes against hope that she will see her daughter again. If individual scenes look stale and tired, with settings lacking in originality and freshness, we have to remember that the Republic of Gilead is intended to be a prison of the mind and imagination as well as of the body.

One can debate whether the society as imagined by Atwood and Schlondorff could ever exist in the US or elsewhere. We only see a particular aspect of the totalitarian theocracy as it affects women of three social classes. The society is at war against rebels but we don’t learn very much about the war and how much of it is real and how much is propaganda. The polarity of truth and lying extends into Offred’s life: she is told by Serena Joy that her daughter is alive and safe, but we have no way of knowing if Serena Joy is telling the truth. Offred pins her hopes on seeing her daughter again and perhaps creating a new family unit with the child and Nick; but jump some months to the ending where a heavily pregnant Offred is still waiting for Nick and her lost daughter in a derelict caravan in a barren wilderness, and we start to wonder whether Nick has been arrested by the Republic’s paramilitary, has betrayed and abandoned Offred or is still searching for the child.

The film puts forward the case that totalitarian societies that control people’s lives to highly intrusive degrees are also societies lacking in love and true social connections. People lose their identities and individuality and are reduced to cartoon stereotypes that repeat over and over with each new generation. The ideals that supposedly inspire and invigorate such societies are empty and offer no comfort or fulfillment. Some of the best and most horrific lines in the film about the nature of the theocracy are uttered by the commander, who sincerely believes that the theocracy he serves has eliminated the scum of society and brought about a cleaner, clearer world with what he believes are proper moral values. These values though are shown to be false and hollow ideals in his own life as he seeks warmth and connection in activities that contradict what he is supposedly working towards.

In its own way the film succeeds in its goal of demonstrating what a soulless, inhuman society does to people, and how individuals try to cope, preserve their sanity and lives, or find meaning and purpose in such a psychotic culture by becoming passive, cruel and controlling, hypocritical or just plain bonkers. Unfortunately the film itself becomes robotic and enervated in its presentation. Perhaps this in itself proves the film’s point about totalitarian and repressive societies.

Kapsapea: an entertaining parody of action adventure / romance films

Riho Unt, “Kapsapea / A Cabbage” (1993)

A stop-animation parody of action adventure films like the Indiana Jones movie series, “Kapsapea” revolves around the travails of a humble farming family that discovers a giant cabbage has grown on their plot. The farmer, who conducts scientific experiments with alcohol on the side, imagines the fame and fortune that will accrue so he takes his giant vegetable down to his local pub where it is photographed by reporter Harrison for The New York Times. News of the giant cabbage spreads far and wide and it’s not long before American gangsters, agents from the KGB and spies from Communist China turn up in the neighbourhood eager to claim the cabbage for themselves. Most of the film is taken up with chases around the Estonian countryside as the farmer is pursued by hoodlums and spooks alike who’ll stop at nothing to grab the cabbage off him. Meanwhile Harrison falls in love with the farmer’s young daughter but their romance is nearly derailed when they fall foul of the Russians.

The action is tight and easily understood by audiences who don’t speak Estonian, although some of the finer points of the film, like any satire, will be lost on outsiders. One has to overlook the racist stereotypes surrounding the Chinese and Russian spies. There is plenty of slapstick comedy, some of it quite crude, and some scenes in the pub put the film out of reach of young children. The animation is well done although some of the action sequences are a bit hard on the eye and I’m not really sure what was chasing Harrison and his lady love while they were barrelling through an underground tunnel, in a recreation of the opening scenes of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. The characters are stuffed dolls made of cloth and various other soft materials, and look rough-hewn.

It’s definitely very light entertainment with not much of a moral or deeper meaning behind the plot. The farmer and the men who chase him are played for greedy buffoons while the women around them either faff about or strut sluttishly.