Flashes in the pan

Print edition : January 14, 2005

The International Film Festival of India, while not lacking in glitz and glamour, falls short of expectations. Some outstanding films, however, save the day.

in Panaji

Tangled with difficult relationships that intersect, change and find new alignments, The Syrian Bride is as real as a documentary, as surreal as an allegory.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The Syrian Bride

ONE hundred and seventy five films from 50 nations, 50 press conferences, open forums for interactions, premieres, a guest list of foreign film-makers, actors, producers and festival directors, Bollywood stars flitting in and out, cameras jostling for close-ups, TV crews rushing hither and thither, star gazers and film buffs - the International Film Festival of India 2004 had all this and more.

However, the success of a film festival is not judged by glitz. Had the shift to Goa spelt the end of red tape and armchair selection? No. As before, the festival has no permanent director, and little international networking by the selectors through world travel. A Thiruvananthapuram producer nodded when a scribe from Kolkata said: "One does not look for quality fare in IFFI." A Mumbai delegate sniffed, "Even in the West, the opening film Vanity Fair got at best a tepid response. The closing film Alexander is a yawn." Serious filmgoers were disappointed at the pedestrian retrospective section. Many were surprised by the allotment of a retrospective to Ashok Amritraj, and a tribute to Yash Johar. Others asked why no homage was paid to Suraiya who died this year, or the pioneer director K. Subrahmanyam, whose centenary falls this year. A nondescript screening marked the 50th anniversary of Pather Panchali, and there was no mention of it at the main functions.

Mani Ratnam, chairman of the jury in the Asian Competition section, expressed his disappointment over the quality of the films in his note (read out at the prize-giving ceremony, which he missed owing to sudden illness). He demanded greater responsibility to ensure high quality selection. The films this writer saw in the section confirmed his view, among them Endless Way and Shanghai Story from China, a nation known for making good films.

Cinema of the World was a heartening section this year. IFFI may have missed many award winners across the world, but it had some outstanding features. Two Oscar entries in the foreign films category focussed on vastly different father-son encounters. The Return, a brilliant debut film by Andrei Zvyagintsev (Russia), is an eerie parable, with the son's vertigo, and the overcoming of it, as the leitmotif. A savage father's mysterious return after 12 years, a fishing trip with schoolboy sons as a cover for some nefarious business, a drive through remote northwestern Russia, and tragedy in a lone sun-and-starlit, rain-washed island. A rite of passage film? Christian myth? Pagan parable? The breathtaking camera and music, strike psycho-metaphysical chords.

Gianni Amelio's The House Keys (Italy) has the father struggling with the guilt of abandoning Paolo, his son, after the death of his wife in childbirth. Paolo is 15 when Gianni takes him to a Berlin clinic for treatment. What follows takes Gianni - and the viewer - through a gamut of emotions, as spontaneous as they are intense. Nothing is overblown or maudlin, but the impact is overwhelming. The physical awkwardness of the son against the father's film star handsomeness creates its own irony. The son is more assured and in control, while the father flounders in a bog and must learn to walk straight in life, a counterpoint to the son's walking exercises. The camera captures feelings as they flit across the face, brief, evanescent, subtle, sudden.

If you think that road movies have been done to death, watch The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, Argentina-Brazil-Chile-United States). In this unique motorbike romp we watch a young Che Guevara and pal Alberto Granado racing through adventures. Latin American topography is a vital part of the emotions aroused by encounters of many kinds, including a halt at a lepers' colony. Did this zest for life infuse Guevara's revolutionary fervour? The experiences prod reflexivity.

On the last day, Claud Chabrol's new film Flower of Evil was a bonus. The master's style lances and lays bare - by suspenseful degrees - the incestuous skeletons in the well-to-do small town, intermarrying, family cupboards. The son returns from the U.S. to renew his relationship with Michelle, daughter of his stepmother. The mother's election campaign splatters the family with old scandals, including the charges of patricide against sweet, frail grand aunt Line, a grim shadow despite the subsequent acquittal. The drunken father is accidentally killed by Michelle when he tries to rape her. Old wounds burst open in the process of redemption. Theme and treatment go beyond the thriller genre, but not beyond velvety narration and seamless editing.

THE haunting films came from nations ravaged by war. The best were unmistakeably localised in milieu and character, but managed to cut across time, space and cultures. The Fuse (Pjer Zalica, Bosnia-Herzegovina) was a stunning example. Its supreme irony was that director Zalica thought that he was making a film about peacetime, as he was fed up of violence and bloodshed. He cuts to Tesanj, a small town in Bosnia after the war, but in the opening shot a bomb explodes, mutilating a young girl. Corruption, crime, flesh trade and deceit flourish in the undimmed flames of hatred and intolerance. But all the evils must be destroyed in seven days, and a liberal democracy established. Wasn't U.S. President Clinton to visit Tesanj and become its honorary citizen? Wouldn't this transform the barbaric world to reap all the benefits of global aid?

The ensemble acting is superb, the wackiness more credible than any `normalcy'. As the reels flow on, the unknown Bosnian town expands into the world of here and now, to viewers across the globe, trying desperately to bury all traces of the stench that won't go away. Such magic happens but rarely. Summer in the Golden Valley, also from Bosnia-Herzegovina, with many of the same actors, could not cast the same tragic-farce spell.

Starting with socio-political significances, the act of border-crossing acquired psychological and spiritual significances in the piercing complexities of The Syrian Bride (Eran Riklis, Israel). Tangled with difficult relationships that intersect, change and find new alignments, the film is as real as a documentary, as surreal as an allegory. To marry her cousin, Mona must cross the border from her village in Israel-occupied territory into Syria. She can never return to see her family again.

The situation is fraught with mounting stress - the activist father insists on participating in a protest rally, the bride sits in a room where the President's speech is telecast, the Israeli policeman becomes menacing, the community elders threaten to ostracise the father if he allows his pariah son, who had `sinned' against the orthodox clan by marrying a foreigner, into the family fold. The feminist elder sister, rebelling against her husband's chauvinistic decrees, tells her daughter to follow her own heart and not allow bigotry to destroy her life.

Gianni Amelio's The House Keys takes the viewer through a gamut of emotions, as spontaneous as they are intense.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The House Keys

Based on a real-life event, the story etches characters with intriguing strokes, leaving much to the imagination. The more convincing it is as a local incident, in a remote Golan Heights village of a secretive Druze community, the more universal and timeless its ricocheting echoes.

Impressively chilling perspectives came from Norway, its Chlorox, Ammonia and Coffee, looking at men and women with guns and pills, and Canada, whose Manners of Dying runs through the navarasas (nine emotions) in the man-about-to-be-executed wanting to film his last moments for his mother. South Africa's Wondrous Oblivion uses cricket as a means of focussing on and overcoming racial prejudice. The unforgettable final visual is of the cricket-mad boy's collection of photographs of all- time greats. Frank Worrell, Peter May, Gary Sobers - the whole galaxy comes alive within black and white margins, smiling and waving at the boy, and the viewer.

Yesterday, the first film in Zulu language, made by a white African director Darrell James Roodt (who made the extraordinary Sarafina), deals with the selfless unsung heroism of a village woman riddled by Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, the ailment which is now ravaging the nation more than genocides ever did.

In Kees the Boy (Ander van Duren, Netherlands) an old-fashioned camera tells a heartwarming story of a schoolboy plunged into seedy poverty by his father's death, and his flights of fantasy that refuse to crumble when assaulted by reality. Adapted from a beloved novel, the film scores in its details and dimensions in recreating a writer's memories.

The films from nations that knew strife and disaster managed to triumph over the constraints of a small budget through sheer passion for the art, and for the telling. The narratives could be bleak, but the spirit was not cowed. The very act of making the film, of creating art, was affirmation enough. Their protests were a way of resisting violent forces, razing their worlds like a sudden, colossal, inexorable, blind-as-fate tsunami.

Nothing new under the sun? But cinema can light them up afresh. Events small or remote then acquire universal proportions as with the extremely moving montage in Argentina's 18-J. Ten directors contribute their reactions to the bomb explosion in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 persons in the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) on July 18, 1994. The themes and styles are different, but not the emotion of grief and rage - the terrorism has neither been explained, nor its perpetrators identified or punished.

We see the victims - an old Jewish couple about to visit their politically exiled daughter in Israel, the bomb exploding in the midst of a son's rebellion against celebrating his bar mitvah, the circumcision ceremony for which the expected godfather will never arrive, the terrified woman in a far village calling to find out if her job-seeking son is safe. Finally a victim appears to bear testimony to her fate.

But we leave the hall ruminating on Dante's Inferno, which bores the schoolboy studying the text for his exams. A bomb explodes, and the lines acquire hitherto unimaginable meanings, cutting straight into a shattering present. Nothing has changed under the sun since Dante's times, but his verses, as also the film, have not stopped grappling with the inexplicabilities of human existence.

South Africa's Wondrous Oblivion uses cricket as a means of focussing on and overcoming racial prejudice. The unforgettable final visual is of the cricket-mad boy's collection of photographs of all-time greats.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Wondrous Oblivion

JUXTAPOSED with such fare, it was difficult to relish popcorn stuff such as Baz Taylor's Take 3 Girls (United Kingdom) with our own Kabir Bedi playing poor, desperate Mo in multi-cultural London, facing bankruptcy, converting his business place into a nightclub, with the help of chance-met girls who conveniently turn out to be a rapper, a disc jockey and a dancer.

Beautifully crafted, well-made films also take second place. Marc Forster's Finding Neverland (U.S.) was one such. Pitched to a totally different theme from his award-winning Monster's Ball, the film starts with a glittering premiere of a flop, and proceeds to track playwright James Barrie (Johnny Depp) as he plays games and flies kites with the four children next door. Abandoned by their father, in the care of a dying mother, they inspire him to create his masterpiece Peter Pan, a utopia of spine-tingling adventures without death, care and illness. No deep chords here, but Forster does not get trapped in self-conscious literariness. The 1900s ambience comes alive with loving details. A treat to see Julie Christie. Kate Winslet almost avoids mawkishness. And Johnny Depp? His good looks must satisfy the eye.

The worst came last. Oliver Stone's Alexander was three hours of blood and gore across the wide screen, in close-up and long shot. There was even a panoramic elephant-cavalry battle in India, with the screen drenched in the colour red. Neither the characters, nor their relationships could convince. Narrator Anthony Hopkins blabbers tediously, while Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) sounds like an Oxford Don. Alexander's mother, racially an outsider to Macedonia, has serpents sliding over her in endless coils. Need one say more? The dialogues are puerile, the visuals literal. Its opulent settings of the greatest civilisations of the world in Persia and India make Cecille B. de Mille spectaculars seem like Michaelangelo's frescoes.

The film shows the genocide-spewing Greeks as the noble democrats, out to convert the evil denizens of the rest of the dark world, and re-invent other societies and ethnic groups to accept their own `superior' culture and thought. The idea is certainly contemporary, exploding into life through two millennia in the different epochs, in every part of the world, though perhaps not quite in the way Stone would have liked to have it.

IFFI 2004 also brought a moment of wisdom. This was at the open forum meet on Satyajit Ray when British film critic Derek Malcolm recalled how once when he visited the master and asked to see his awards, Ray took him to the bedroom and pulled out an old trunk from under the bed. And within lay the Golden Lion of Venice jostling with Cannes' Palme d'Or, and the other trophies, all equally dusty, blackened, forgotten. Ray walked to the window and pointed to the street sweeper, and said, "I'd exchange all these trophies to get that man into the theatre to see my film."

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