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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taste of Cherry: looks simple and minimal but carries an uncompromising message for viewers

Abbas Kiarostami, “Taste of Cherry” (1997)

 Source: www.thefilmpilgrim.com

On the surface this looks like a very minimalist, in parts improvised film about a man contemplating suicide who implores three people to help him. Mr Badii (Homayoun Ershadi, in his acting debut) who may or may not be a taxi driver – most interpretations of the film assume he is but I didn’t see anything in the film that suggests what his occupation is – drives around Tehran’s industrial and working class zones in his Range Rover trying to pick up a passenger among the various loitering men he sees. At first the suggestion is he may be trying to pick up a potential boyfriend or male prostitute and some of the men he talks to certainly think that’s what he wants. A shy teenage army recruit decides to get into the car and Badii takes him on a long journey out of town and into a semi-barren area where dirt roads twist and wind around hills in an invisible labyrinth. Naturally the recruit wants to know why they passed his barracks and Badii tells him he’s needed for a job. Badii needles some information out of the youngster and we learn the boy is from a Kurdish farming family and needs money to support his relatives and maybe resume his schooling. Badii offers to pay the youngster huge sums of money if he will do what Badii wants him to do. Deep in the scrubby desert, Badii stops on a particular stretch of road, points out an empty grave next to a tree (both never seen in the film) and tells the boy that he, Badii, plans to swallow all his sleeping pills and lie in that grave overnight. The boy’s job is to return the following morning and call out to him: if Badii responds, the boy is to help him out of the grave; if Badii doesn’t reply, the boy is to bury him. The teenager, spooked, refuses to help Badii in this way and dashes off to rejoin his barracks.

Badii gets back in his car and drives down to what looks like a waste tip supervised by a lone security guard. This guy turns out to be an Afghan and in his conversation with Badii, we learn that there are some 2 – 3 million Afghans working in Iran, probably in jobs and industries where the pay is bad and the work is hard and dangerous; and that while Iran was preoccupied with the decade-long war against Iraq in the 1680’s, few Iranians spared a thought for their Afghan neighbours fighting the Soviets in a tougher war in the same period. Badii offers to drive the security guard around to relieve the tedium of his work but the guard declines: he has a friend, a young seminarian, come to visit and keep him company. Badii sees the seminarian in the near distance so goes out to see him and offers him a ride. The seminarian accepts and so again Badii asks him about his background: the fellow has come from Afghanistan seeking labouring work so he can continue his theological studies. Badii offers him the same job and money he offered to the soldier; the seminarian argues that suicide is forbidden by their common Islamic faith. Badii protests that God surely allows people to kill themselves if not doing so is the greater sin because of the risk of harming other people if one were to continue to live. The seminarian continues to put up a weak and dogmatic religious argument against suicide and soon leaves Badii.

After a period of despair, Badii picks up a third man, this time an Azeri or Turkish man, Mr Bagheri (Abdolhossain Bagheri), apparently a simple, warm-hearted chap who in turn is subjected to Badii’s suicide proposition. Bagheri then talks about his own attempt to commit suicide by hanging from a mulberry tree and about how he eventually was dissuaded from killing himself by a quirk of fate: he eats a mulberry and finds it delicious. This leads to a lengthy amble about appreciating nature and simple things, and not to allow life’s pressures to overcome one’s thinking as eventually they will pass. If one changes one’s outlook, one can change the world. The pop psychology advice makes little impression on Badii. Bagheri agrees to Badii’s proposition as he could use the money for his sick son and Badii drops him off at a natural history museum where he works. Suddenly anxious, Badii visits the museum and meets Bagheri again, this time a technical or scientific worker specialising in taxidermy, who brusquely assures him he’ll be at the graveside at the crack of dawn.

Up to this point the film has been very straightforward if minimal and stingy with details. We know nothing about Badii, why he spends his time driving aimlessly around soliciting help for an elaborate suicide plan, how he has come into so much money if he’s supposedly a taxi driver (an occupation not known for making easy money – and Range Rovers are hardly what I’d call typical taxi cars) and what has happened that he is so despondent that he wants to end his life. The lack of specific background knowledge about Badii makes him a representative of humanity rather than a particular human being. Likewise, the three people he picks up represent particular sections of Iranian society, all tied somehow to the Iranian government: the military, the religious class and the bureaucracy; they also represent three stages in the life of a human being: youth, early adulthood and early old age. In addition Bagheri isn’t what he seems at first: in the car, he babbles on and on about living in the moment, enjoying nature and having a different outlook on life; he quotes poetry and sings a song to cheer up Badii; he understands Badii’s pain and readily talks about his own suicide attempt. Out of the car and in the grounds of the museum, Bagheri appears in a lab coat, his entire being radiating a superior, impatient attitude – this hints at how a person’s circumstances determine his or her personality and undercuts what he told Badii in the car. This is a chilling moment which may say something about modern Iranian society that prompts some people to have split personalities to survive in it.

After the scenes with Bagheri, we see Badii shutting up his apartment, being driven back into the badlands, preparing for his death and lying in his tomb. The weather turns bad and there’s a thunderstorm. The film suddenly blacks out and pops out into an apparently washed-out dream sequence (this part of the film is recorded on a handheld video recorder) with soldiers chanting and marching up a hill to where Badii’s grave lies. Kiarostami and his film crew appear on another part of the hill filming the soldiers and issuing instructions to their leader via cellphone or walkie-talkie while actor Ershadi waits nearby. In the distance, Badii’s car zooms off with an unseen driver. I was disappointed initially at never learning if Badii lives or dies but this is not what the film is about: among other things it’s about one man’s questioning of the world he has to live in through the theme of suicide. He interrogates others through their experience about this world and finds their answers unsatisfactory or contradictory. He questions the army recruit about his experience of the army and the recruit is unable or reluctant to reply, perhaps because his experience is so different from what Badii remembers of his own military experience. He interrogates the seminarian and the seminarian’s answers demonstrate book-learning and deference to authority rather than understanding of what he’s learned. Badii interrogates the taxidermist whose answers seem New-Age banal and whose work and later attitude undermine everything he says. Life around Badii also exhibits contradictions, some a bit cruel: after he finds someone who agrees to help him commit suicide, he suddenly sees flowers and trees in a flourishing landscape, he sees a young woman who asks him to take a photograph of her with her boyfriend and all of a sudden women start appearing, walking with school-children or attending Bagheri’s lecture at the museum.

Significantly the women we see, though dressed according to conservative Islamic doctrine, seem to be educated middle class or independent types while most men in the film are poor, ignorant or in a position of serving others: in a severe theocratic society dominated by men, that’s a very strange contradiction indeed. Badii himself may be a contrast to these men: his demeanour and manner, and some of the things he says, suggest he is highly educated and cultured and perhaps finds himself an outsider which would give his pain an existential edge. He is unaware of his own contradictions: he’s intent on ending it all yet takes care going down an unsteady ladder, refuses a meal because it might set off a bad allergic reaction and manages to avoid two serious car accidents. He remembers his time in the army as the happiest time in his life, meeting people and making friends, yet he must have also been shooting and killing lots of people. Perhaps this knowledge is a burden on his mind and has contributed to his decision to end his life?

The film’s simple style belies its careful construction: much of the time we see Badii framed by the windscreen or the window of his car and we never see him and his passenger together in the one shot. It’s as if we’re not just eavesdropping in the conversations between him and his passengers, we’re actually in their heads going from one to the other. At times the camera draws away from the car to take in the scenery which becomes very significant: from the time Badii meets the soldier and presents his proposition to the time Bagheri accepts it, the film is centred in a barren, scrubby landscape of hills and dirt roads that snake around them and fork off into different directions. This landscape perhaps reflects Badii’s inner world, going around in circles each time someone rebuffs him. When he is at his most desperate, he is in a landscape of rubbish dumps and flying dust clouds, reflecting his fragmenting state of mind. Only after Bagheri agrees to the deal does the landscape spring into life. The changing moods of the landscape are in stark contrast to Ershadi’s acting: Ershadi usually has just one expression and one even tone of voice throughout the film which on paper wouldn’t qualify him as having any acting skill at all, yet by his movements and sometimes doleful look in his eyes, and the slight speed in his voice in scenes with the seminarian and Bagheri, he actually does convey something of Badii’s inner anguish and despair. The totally unexpected thing is that since making “Taste of Cherry”, Ershadi has had a steady if not prolific acting career; I’ve seen him in “The Kite Runner” where he had a significant acting and speaking role and his character had to age 10-15 years, and for someone of limited range and no training, he was impressive in an unassuming and straightforward way.

Most reviewers see “Taste of Cherry” as a gentle and meditative film about enjoying life’s pleasures but I find its real underlying message severe and uncompromising. I think Iranian viewers (the target audience) are asked to question the kind of society they live in that causes people like Badii to conclude that he and others would be better off if he killed himself. The answer doesn’t look good: some recent statistics released by the Aria Strategic Studies Center and quoted by the Iranian Labor News Agency show that 30% of people in Tehran have severe depression and another 28% suffer mild depression with some of causes being violence by security and law enforcement, mass arrest and murder of arrested citizens in torture centres or during protests and the results of the 2009 Presidential election, and other causes relating to the falling economic situation which is partly caused by a corrupt and incompetent government. (Source: Payvand News of Iran, www.payvand.com) I don’t know if Tehran is representative of Iran but it does have about 18% of the country’s population. Telling people living in a brutal and grinding police state that they should live for the moment and take pleasure in the simple things in life becomes an insult when I see figures like these.