Deccani Souls | Kaz Rahman, 2012, India-Canada
Deccani Souls is a poetic meditation on the memory of a police action known as “Operation Polo” that took place in the city Hyderabad in 1948. In this conflict allegedly 200,000 people were killed by the Indian army while forcing the city (and State) to be part of the newly formed country of India (after its independence from England). The majority of the victims were Muslims citizens who were violently discriminated against and displaced from their homes. This film is also an attempt to understand these people’s cultural destiny within this historical event.
The content of Deccani Souls is delivered by characters that in one way or another become connected by their search into the collective memory of “Operation Polo”. Among them there is Babu, a government employee that collects data to provide compensation for the state’s historical damages and Siddiq, a poet who is looking for the remaining writings of his grandfather’s censured books. There is also a third character Hamza (Kaz Rahman himself), who seems to be coming from a different cultural landscape as a visitor. Everyone is represented within the public and intimate social confines of the contemporary city of Hyderabad; through their interactions and inquiries, these characters reveal the cultural significance of an historical genocide.
With a directorial style that combines introspective moments with few dramatic developments the movie facilitates a sensorial experience similar to “contemplation”. There is a sense of being without the need for tension or drama; the historical facts alluded to remain latent on the rhythm of its narrative, becoming an artistic proposition where the important thing is not to achieve, to arrive, or to conquer, but to represent evenness in plenitude with a continuum. This formal characteristic proposes a rather holistic view of cinema where original messages are to be understood under meditative parameters of engagement in an attempt to represent a certain “wholeness” very similar to the notion of “holiness” (the “sacred” connotation of the experience is palpable).
Perhaps one of the main narrative conflicts of the film is that its characters seem to randomly wander the city in an effort to describe its exotic social surroundings rather than to advance any specific dramatic content. The camera often waits or follows them as if actions could be justified by the sole physicality of the landscape contained in the frame, but those predictable movements could also symbolize the presence of an overwhelming, alien, environment.
With a poetic approach to injustice and cultural identity, Deccani Souls is capable of recreating poignant realities that reflect on many present cultural concerns: social indifference and the need to move on, as well as mistrust for government officials may be suggested in scenes representing a lack of interest for reparatory compensations; the schizophrenic dualities found in many Diasporas are represented in dreamy, cold and empty images of western territories that are in silent contrast with the overcrowded and culturally charged scenes of India; a beautiful metaphor about nurturing (food as well as knowledge) comes across in a scene of a popular banquet while a narrator describes the details of Operation Polo in 1948; and the powerfully suggestive soundtrack made of ambient street sounds, ceremonial chants, plus Hedi Hurban’s compositions are an appropriate emotional contribution.
Deccani Souls represents a history of violence and displacement that many Muslim citizens endured in Hyderabad 65 years ago; it also raises many questions about their role in India today -- a symbolic return to a place that, for many, once was called home.
11.25: The Day He Chose His Own Fate | Koji Wakamatsu, 2012, Japan
Wakamatsu’s frontally-shot, semi-sterile, mechanical and harsh digital images seem to put Mishima’s revolutionary streak into perspective – one may build a considerable argument that this draining out of the romantic aspect from a revolutionary proclamation is (at the least) easier with digital video, because film’s inherent quality can cause an objective criticism of any idea to collapse rapidly – while the unsophisticated, clean and entirely ‘real’ digital image will remove planar/compositional conveniences of the film image and present all lofty claims, as if made to stand in an inquisition, in the foreground. This is an attribute typical of one of Wakamatsu’s last features – a film about the controversial Japanese novelist, Yukio Mishima, as he leads his merry-band of acolytes/sycophantsin the demand for the restoration of Japan’s loyalty to its Emperor, the nation’s kokutai and the Samurai bushido code; but eventually, to their brutal suicides on the fateful date listed in the film’s title. Wakamatsu’s approach towards the treatment of the Mishima character is exceptional and if a single word would describe it, cautious – he remains vary of presenting the almost-Noble laureate as a visionary or a superstar-rebel, instead choosing to entomb the kindred human spirit in a grave full of mirrors. As such, Wakamatsu is clear about presenting Mishima as a sincere, earnest individual with a set of very personal beliefs and the balls to carry on with them, but he doesn’t romanticize these as necessary qualities; choosing instead, to let Mishima expound on rambling and endless exposition that reveal not merely his actual incapacity to achieve anything of value, but also, at the film’s harshest, just how pathetic his entire endeavour was. Two sequences stand out as examples of this directorial intent.
The first features an attempt by two Japanese revolutionaries (less revolution, more sloganeering) who decide to hijack or outright steal a fisherman’s boat to travel to a disputed neighbouring island to plant a Japanese flag and reclaim what they believe is theirs. Wakamatsu stages this sequence as a giant gag, always in a long-shot and with a determination to present these two guys as nothing more than party clowns who berate their audiences with great profundities even as everyone laughs at them.
The second sequence however is even more exemplary of Wakamatsu’s larger style during the film. As Mishima and other members of the Shield Society proceed towards the Ministry of Defense office on the chosen date of their revolutionary call-to-arms and manifesto-distribution, Wakamatsu deliberately films a portion of their car-ride frontally, through the windshield as if to mimic one of the rear-projection sequences from classical films. The aim remains to reduce these characters, even if they participate in a group revolutionary sing-song, to historical abstractions, antiquities who seem to belong to a different era and definitely not to the world that surrounds them (and what image is more symptomatic of that than the rear-projection image). Wakamatsu extends this inbuilt criticism-machinery by also then inducing deliberate anachronisms to the image – the interiors of the car are contemporary; belonging, at the earliest, to the 90s, the road outside is clearly modern-day Tokyo with all the indicators of such a fact in place and finally, the image itself, with all its clarity and resolution, is a 21st century ‘recreation’ of a 1970s incident – this reveals the artifice of the whole affair, making Mishima and his devotees seem like actors devotedly playing roles, but never believing in a single word their characters say (which may be true too; Resnais would be proud).
And yet, Wakamatsu is clear that this film in the Shōwa-era trilogy (United Red Army and Caterpillar being the other ones) does not think of its lead character as anything less than sympathetic and if not heroic, definitely tragic. In terms of the Japanese entries on the problematic notion of militarization but even more essentially, youth entering military as a ‘service to the nation’ – 11.25: The Day He Chose His Own Fate stands as a great accompaniment to films like The Burmese Harp(1951), Fighting Elegy(1966) and Crazy Thunder Road(1980). [Anuj Malhotra]
Patang | Prashant Bhargava, 2012, USA
The saturated, high-contrast images of Bhargava’s first film, that seem to belong very strictly to the blue-pink section of the colour-wheel, can trace direct lineage back to the music video of mid-90s; eccentric, disjointed images shot from a multitude of angles and with varying shot-sizes, focal lengths and a curious disregard for spatial or temporal unity – this is interesting, because everything in the film seems to exist as a long-drawn music cut to an inaudible music track; it is interesting also, if not entirely intentional, this sort of a splintered sense of time or place belongs inside a film about immigrants with a crisis-of-identity returning home.
There are two more facts that Bhargava’s debut is rather honest about; the first, that the rupture of a distinct sense of being from a place or the loss of familiarity with one’s origins is not exclusive anymore to the international immigrant or the NRI – such is possible even for those who just changed cities within India itself. This is a crucial observation, coming as it is in the wake of post-1991 economic reforms. Two decades ago and even until very recently, one of the major parameters of middle-class Indian success was the procurement of residence abroad – as such, families back home would reserve their annual ceremonies of awe and reverence for a distant uncle, a software engineer son or a teacher aunt who would return to the country with an imported umbrella as a gift. What the introduction of the free-economy did was, in the words of Amartya Sen, ‘create California of one part of the country and the Sahara out of another’; these schisms of economic and cultural progress began to exist and widen not only between India and America (or England, or Australia) but intra-nation as well, or between traders who moved to the metropolitans to institute karobaars (the uncle who moves to Delhi and those who stayed back in the smaller cities, towns or villages (his brother’s family that he leaves behind).
Patang presents very sincerely the envy, insecurity and clear anguish present in such a familial dynamic – and it is truthful about how there really is no resolution to it. The distinction between those who stay back and those who leave is made clear in a series of two or three sequences set on the day of the Kite Festival itself –the rich city-dwelling uncle is dressed in his urban-businessman uniform: track-pants, cap and glasses and his school friends look like they never really evolved out of their locality, dressed in their sleeveless sweaters and wide-grins. But the conflict between the uncle and his brother’s family really comes to an head when, during one of the post-lunch discussion sessions so endemic to Indian life, the uncle condescendingly offers to buy the family a house in a more posh neighbourhood in the city. His nephew Chakku (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, stoned but sincere, as usual) raises his voice in protest at this handing-down and lets past skeletons tumble freely out of the closet, accusing the uncle, essentially, of destroying his own father.
The point that Patang makes is quite clear in this great tract of filmmaking: rehabilitation or its offer is not always noble and when conducted with such pompousness, even cruel. But what is even more remarkable in this sequence is how mildly all the overhearing neighbours react to Chakku’s seemingly scandalous observations – they aren’t stunned or taken aback in the style of the usual films, but just grimace slightly to express reservation against this disturbance of their lunch. This is very true to the Indian middle-class neighbourhood – no news is new for anyone, every such rumour and perhaps juicier ones have been doing rounds of the colony for many years now – despite Bhargava’s American origins, he renders life in the Indian residential community more honestly than most Indian films. [AM]
Fat, Short, Bald Men | Carlos Osuna, 2011, Colombia
This exists with Richard Linklater’s pioneering Waking Life as the two remarkable instances of rotoscopy’s formal effects being put into the service of a grander idea. In the Linklater, the lead character seems to exist in a perpetual state of being ‘out of body’ – his discussions with various other characters about deconstruction, being, conscious and most accurately, lucid dreaming seem to concretise the film’s central concern – a man’s ability to objectively appreciate the nature of his own existence. As such, the flowy, quivery, fluid outlines of the sketched (or traced) bodies in the film seem to suggest a constantly dissolving boundary between the man’s subjective and his universal, objective states of existence – as if the door of the being-container (the human body) is trying not to give away under the constant pressure of the flood of inner conscience or spirit that rushes outwards to escape its confinement. In Osuna’s Colombian film, the body-outlines itself are used less and the focus remains on the whole nature of the rotoscopic image – inherently, a traced outline is composited (or projected) onto a background where it does not naturally belong, much like rear-projection. In this case, Osuna’s choice of background is crucial to the rendering of his primary idea, that of a lead protagonist who fears oblivion and is engaged in a constant battle against, merely, fading into the background of uselessness and futility. In essence, in order to self-preserve, he must forever present himself in the foreground and forcefully stamp his prominence onto any situation in order to just be noticed. Osuna composites his lead character’s shaky form in front of soft-focus real-life stills that contain elaborate action within themselves. This leads to a number of images in the film elucidating its protagonist’s central fear – of struggling to stay essential, prominent and not being lost in the melee of his background. It is a formal victory, foremost, but it also permits Osuna to deliver a moment of great clarity in the film: at around the 55-minute mark, when his lead, Antonio, finally seems to have identified real friendship in his boss and another colleague, the directors cuts to an image of three little figures walking together, smiling and joking as friends do, bang in the middle of the screen – but with the background completely removed, or at the least, entirely empty, a giant yellow vacuum that only the characters are now prominently visible against. This is very clever; and a great manner in which to portray the restoration of self-esteem in a character, as well as his promotion in the planar-hierarchy through a move to the foreground through the absolute elimination of the background. [AM]
Florentine’s good-versus-bad fable is set inside a movie universe that exists on the real streets of New York City, thereby replacing the mystique of various martial-arts films with an interesting authenticity. Nonetheless, the ‘good’ and the ‘evil’ teams distinguish themselves through clever ol’ fashioned tastes in clothing. As if on a creative loan from the 80s, the henchmen very helpfully wear colour-coded uniforms so as to stand out in the middle of crowded metropolitan streets; their black track-suits with red linings on each side being the confirmed indicator of villainy and sinister intent within the scheme of the film. Similarly, those on the good side mostly adorn white or variations of it. The premise, merely an excuse for the respective inconveniences that the hero and the villain can cause each other, is that a good apple ninja and a bad apple ninja are trained in the same dojo. Various narrative tricks are then employed to reach a stage where the good one becomes the protector of a historical legacy that the bad one wants to steal, and therefore, violate the honour of. Later in the film, one discovers the villain ninja’s affiliation to a secret underground cult run by a crazy capitalist dude who will murder if it is profit’s second name. Yes, there are these obvious political/social subtexts that are embedded within the film without (quite remarkably) marring the possibility of a more primitive enjoyment of its material. These are, namely: cult lunacy, protection of a national heritage, modern-day hedonism and such – but I believe it’s advisable to think of these only as fertile setups for (yet) another set-piece. This is after all, is the cinema of utmost sensation but no real feeling, of pain without the suffering, of amusement without the joy.
Even then, it’s not as if the film is completely devoid of a certain quality; consider this single sudden tracking shot for instance. In a sequence set atop a moving NYC subway train, Casey (Scott Adkins) and Namiko (Mika Hijii) try to ward off the henchmen, but Casey is soon alone because Namiko is not a natural at this, she’s out of her natural habitat (the dojo) and therefore, is really just being thrown around. All of a sudden, however, she happens to spot a commuter with a crutch that she can borrow for a while – she picks up the device and suddenly crouches down with the said weapon pointed menacingly pointed in the direction of an oncoming henchman. This is a common action-film trope, mind you, Jackie Chan’s use of incidental props as weapons really informs much contemporary action choreography; but this single moment in the film is special because Florentine does not use the newly-acquired purposeful expression, the weapon in her hand or her athleticism to suggest an inevitable comeback in the fight; instead, he uses a track-in that slows down the fight to an amble and evokes within the audience the memory of the film’s past itself: in the credit sequence of the film, which is a montage of the various students at the dojo practicing their skills, Nomiko populates the corner of a single frame, practicing with a stick-like weapon and assuming a similar pose to the one she has deposited herself into inside the train. Nomiko in the train therefore reminds us of Nomiko in the dojo; assuring us, as audiences, therefore, via the crutch, of her return to the security of what one knows – also the assurance that the henchman’s ass is now getting beat. [AM]
Alexandre Oscar Dupont’s first three films (Boy Meets Girl, Mauvais Sang, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) featured heroes (all played by Denis Lavant) called Alex. In the interim, he made a film about a boy named Pierre (played by the late Guillaume Depardieu in Pola X). With Holy Motors, Denis Lavant plays a man who is mostly identified as Monsieur Oscar. The etymological shift from Alex to Oscar, from first to middle name, is perhaps a reflection on the shifting level of identification on the part of Carax with his lead actor, a collaboration comparable in many ways with, say, Mastroianni and Fellini or, closer to home, with Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud, the actor whom Lavant most resembles. Shifts in identification is the theme of the film, which is one of the most unusual and strangest experiences to be had in contemporary cinema. Screened at the Chennai International Film Festival under dubious projection, Holy Motors is a striking departure for Carax though it retains much of his flourish for strong, physical performance and non-narrative audio-visual drift, such as in this case, an entr’acte(interval) that features Lavant leading a band of accordion players.
Oscar is an actor who traverses Paris in a limousine (chauffeured by Edith Scob, she with Eyes Without A Face) and conducts his routine via a series of appointments. The limousine is a portable backstage of costumes, make-ups, complete with mirror bracketed by light-bulbs. The film itself is structured on these appointments, each one calling for different sets of make-up and changes in costumes. One appointment has him playing a beggarwoman on a Paris street, another has him in a motion-capture suit recording movements in a green screen room, and perhaps the best of this appointments has Lavant reprising his role from Merde!, Carax’s famous short for the anthology Tokyo! The impressive thing of this conceit is the way Carax doesn’t even separate or blur between what seems to be the actor’s “work” and what is perhaps his “real life”, which is to say that the question of realness isn’t even put on, the film sees fiction and roleplay, facades and surfaces, illusions in other words as an inescapable part of daily life, which is why the film is such a bleak experience overall. Carax shot the film in digital despite not liking the format criticizing the decline of “the era of visible machines”, at one point a photographer in the middle of a photo shoot forgoes a digital camera for his Hasselblad camera from his assistant, to better capture Lavant’s tramp figure. And yet the gesture seems desperate. Carax’s film is about people stuck in a past, the films and lives of previous years and unable or unwilling to move forward.
However, as much the film reflects a sense of claustrophobia, of confined interiors and frozen gestures(in this it succeeds more than Cosmopolis, the other big limo-movie of 2012), Holy Motors doesn’t fully distance itself from the mood of its characters, it ends up as a claustrophobic and enervating experience. His best film, Pola X, broke new ground and found fresh inspiration in contemporary life despite featuring a similarly bleak vision. Holy Motors works best as a sign of Carax remaining in form, anticipating the next great vision which owing to the film’s relative success, seems to promise a shorter wait. [Sudarshan Ramani]
Walker | Tsai Ming-liang, 2012, Hong Kong - Taiwan
One of the films playing at the festival was an anthology film, a rare format in contemporary cinema. The pros and cons are the same as always, given a general theme, articulated as “what is beautiful this year”, it allows for different takes on an abstract idea of varying quality and interest. Some banal and awkward, a result of squeezing feature film ideas into a short-film format and in the case of Walker, a solid piece, though not quite the director’s best work. Walker stars Lee Kang-Sheng, Tsai’s constant lead actor, who plays a monk immersed in total concentration and focus. He walks the streets of Hong Kong, one slow, hypnotic step at the time, all the while maintaining the same posture. This results in a film that plays at times like a gallery installation though with a hypnotic power and wit that is essentially cinematic, filled as it is with a powerful cold vision of modern life, filled with a sense of sadness and futility, especially the unexpected final shot which is not exactly a twist in a plot sense but on the level of rhythm. And the hypnotic rhythm of the film, the suspense of the monk’s movements and the actor Lee Kang-Sheng’s command of his body is the film’s real subject and Tsai’s de-centered compositions which could not be entirely appreciated on the digibeta screened at the Chennai Film Festival, but memorable nonetheless. [SR]
Mushrooming by Toomas Hussar is the official entry for the country for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film 2013 and it’s one of the most unpretentious and well made political satires in recent years. A member of parliament, Aadu (Raivo E. Tamm) has raised much media furor over his considerable corruption. He goes on a mushrooming expedition with his wife and an unexpected third companion Zak (Juhan Ulfsack) a musician and entertainer who is as curious about what he’s doing with his present company as we are. The film’s simple plot of a city couple whose sheer stupidity creates a situation that need not have occurred suggests the influence of the Coen Brothers but it has a wisdom and sense of experience particular to itself and with a greater awareness of class realities and human duplicity. Still the satire isn’t bitter and the film-maker finds a level of sympathy for the essentially unlikable Aadu, who gets a great acting moment at the film’s closing press conference, being both honest and duplicitous at the same time. [SR]
The Maiden Danced to Death | Endre Hulles, 2011, Hungary
The Chennai Film Festival devoted a section towards Hungarian cinema (which somehow managed to exclude Miklós Jancsó and Béla Tarr) included this well made 2011 backstage drama, in the vein of Minnelli’s The Band Wagon and Powell-Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, though it’s considerably more melodramatic. Character actor Endre Hulles has appeared in several American TV shows and bit parts in Se7en and Apollo 13. As such, The Maiden Danced to Death which he directed, wrote and stars in, offers a good showcase of his gifts as a storyteller, especially in its personal exploration of being part of the Hungarian diaspora. Featuring actual Hungarian folk dancers, the film tells a familiar story of art and commerce and personal egos clashing and burning during the process of putting on a show, and of course it also relates to the anti-cliché of such ego clashes and unethical behavior helping the show in some unexpected ways. Vilmos Zsigmond as one of the film’s two DPs makes splendid use of Budapest locations and the story itself has a strong approach to characters who veer close to melodramatic cliché but manage to retain a degree of self, especially Bea Melkvi’s Mari, the most agreeable performer in the film. Still, the film does give us a different view of the old world-new world conflict, mainly by sending the Canadian-Hungarian to Hungary rather than the other way and the film does give us a good look at Hungarian dances though it lacks the great requisite of the backstage musical, the finale which is the sum of the rehearsals. The dances are more visually achieved during the film’s rehearsal scenes than in the final moment, more dramatic in the way they are imagined and planned out then in the final product which is shown merely as a stopping point rather than a real climax, a choice that somehow suits the film’s rhythm well and is well made. [SR]
Amour | Michael Haneke, 2012, France
Michael Haneke’s cinema is not one of subtlety in narrative purpose and effect. You pretty much know what to expect from the get-go. You know that Amour will be a hard look about aging, about “not going gently into the night”. Its title is obviously ironic and promises a shattering of common ideas about love and its virtues. This foreknowledge as in the case of the film’s precursors, Ingmar Bergman and Maurice Pialat is no blanket of security. At best, it offers thin strength to brace yourself from the intensity of its gaze.
Amour tells the story of an age old French couple, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Both actors returning to the cinema after a considerable hiatus, and in the case of Trintignant, actual retirement. Georges and Anna have enjoyed a long marriage, they have no financial problems that we can decipher and their daughter is married and successful as well. Everything changes in their life when Anne suffers a stroke thereby marking the beginning of her decline. The end of her life, instead of retirement and happiness devolves into a series of pitiless nursing rituals, which leaves her in the constant care of Trintignant. The territory of aging is famously, “not good at the box-office”(as per Orson Welles) and yet Haneke’s film has achieved a widespread popular support much like Tokyo Story did in its day (a box-office hit) and several crowd-punishing Bergman films. This has entirely to do with Haneke’s clarity. The subject is desiccation and yet the film finds much to say about marriage and life all the more so since death is at hand. It’s non-chronological framing device removes any sense of finality and order to cling to and in places there is much wit, a pigeon motif that is surprising and wondrous all the more so for seeming so out of place, and yet it makes sense. Thanks mostly to Jean-Louis Trintignant whose own life, the history he carries in his face and body, would allow no room for the expected emotional cues and steady signposts for the audience. Emmanuelle Riva’s role is more punishing and a challenge in a different way but one which she rises to magnificently, bringing the early breakfast scene with remarkable subtlety and ambiguity.
Haneke’s vision of aging is very contemporary. It’s one of paid nurses whose slangy chirpiness is incredibly annoying, where the dread of dying in hospital maligns homes into wards and where recent advances in wheelchair technology and other exercises offers thin support in facing the inevitable. All that’s left is a love coupled with a fear of loneliness and dread of mortality. Essentially timeless in other words. [SR]
Bella Addormentata | Marco Bellochio, 2012, Italy
Haneke’s film implicitly addresses the debate of euthanasia though its concerns are broader. Marco Bellochio however tackles the political, social and moral debate on the “right-to-die” in all its facets. The range of the film’s scope can be described as essayistic. It leaves no stone uncovered in the way it tackles Italy’s unseemly nexus of mass-media, internecine politics and religious fervor against which characters from across class and social divides engage each other personally and politically. Bernardo Bertolucci and Bellocchio were youthful Marxists upsetting Italian cinema in the late 60s, Bellocchio fell of the international radar while remaining more prolific than Bertolucci, even in the latter’s prime. Bellocchio’s prime seems to be ongoing with a series of films such as The Wedding Director, L’ora di religion, Vincere that show the same visual invention as his explosive debut I Pugni in Tasca (Fists in the Pocket).
Bella Addormentata, which was mercifully not translated as “Sleeping Beauty” (instead it’s the more exact and less whimsical Dormant Beauty), is based on the case of Eluana Englaro. Like an ensemble film, the film follows several characters, a socialist politician torn by the latest party compromises, his daughter who loves a young man whose brother is mentally ill. Less broadly connected, nearly self-contained in fact are two separate stories about a woman in a coma. One is a girl who tried to kill herself but who survives in a coma and who, on waking up continues her attempts while the doctor tries to prevent her from doing so. Another is that of an upper-class Franco-Italian family whose daughter is the titular dormant beauty. Her mother is an actress (Isabelle Huppert) whose religious faith prevents her from allowing her daughter to be euthanized, thereby suspending her career to the consternation of her obsessive son.
What makes the film remarkable is its visual beauty. It’s keen sense of framing and cutting, which keeps the action always fresh. It makes much of use of the omnipresence of screens in our daily life, hierarctic images of the Socialist Party standing as a digital projector drapes newsreels over them. Other images hearken to the past, a bathhouse covered in gold that suggests the Roman Senate. It adds up to a glimpse of contemporary Italy in the age of Berlusconi and economic recession. Yet the clarity of Bellocchio’s achievement suggest an optimistic current, it thirsts for reason over the confusion of mass-media and religious clutter, becoming a part of the solution in the same manner. [SR]
The Gardener | Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 2012
Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Gardener survived one cancelled screening and eventually played at the end of the festival. Unheralded and obscure, it’s nonetheless one of the most politically relevant and visually achieved films of the competition. And certainly among the funniest and most entertaining, adjectives that are unexpected from a film-maker of Makhmalbaf’s disposition. Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s last film was Scream of the Ants, shot in India and released in 2006. In the interim he was politically active for the Green Party. When Ahmadinejad won the 2010 election against Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Makhmalbaf supported the latter and has since worked outside Iran in the wake of the terrible crackdown by Iran’s government. The fallout also included the imprisonment of Jafar Panahi and extended Abbas Kiarostami’s stay outside Iran. So where is The Gardener shot? Why Israel of course.
The Gardener is not really about the testy contemporary relationship between Iran and Israel. Its subject or starting point is the Baha’i faith which originated in Iran but flowered abroad. A famous example is the Lotus Temple in Delhi. Israel also houserooms Baha’i practitioners especially in Haifa, where the film makes much use of the gardens at the Baha’i center where it was shot. Makmalbaf and son engage in a philosophical dialogue via their respective cameras about the feasibility of the subject and choice of theme. Makhmalbaf fils opposes a film on religion on general principle while his father is more patient and inquisitive. The son eventually goes to Jerusalem, which is the film’s most impressive and resonant sequence. It’s summed up in an extended rumination on the city’s religious history, the fact that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Christianity), the Al-Aqsa Mosque (Islam) and the Western Wall are on nearly the same block and connected by a few roads. This is summed up in an observation worthy of Brecht himself : “If Iran buils a nuclear bomb and attacks the Western Wall, what will happen to the Al-Aqsa Mosque?”
The Gardener is a film that has to be seen and enjoyed. It’s made with modest means but with a truly independent spirit that no amount of money can ever buy. [SR]