A SEPARATION & THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD (Review by Kenneth R. Morefield): It is fitting that ten years after September 11, 2001, a pair of films depicting life in foreign countries can remind us how similar are the problems, longings and fears of people from different cultures, how fear is not the same thing as evil, and how righteousness is not the same as justice. There are no winners and losers in THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD or A SEPARATION, only survivors who are marginally more or less damaged by the choices they have to make.
Asghar Farhadi’s A SEPARATION is a riveting domestic drama that works equally well as character study or social critique. An ensemble cast without a weak link helps illustrate an infuriating—at times almost despair inducing—culture where a caretaker has to call a religious hotline to confirm whether or not it is a sin to change the pants of an elderly Alzhiemer’s patient who has wet himself, and where a woman who applies for a job without her husband’s permission can face legal sanctions.
Viewers maybe be used to scathing, implicit critiques from contemporary Iranian films but what separates A SEPARATION from films like OFFSIDE, WHEN BUDDHA COLLAPSED FROM SHAME, or MY TEHRAN FOR SALE is the way that it manages to have empathy for men and women, rich and poor alike, showing how good people caught in a web of harsh circumstances can eventually succumb to accumulated pressures created by just trying to survive. Evil lies less in the human heart than in the structures that compel people to harden themselves lest their best instincts be exploited.
The heart of the movie may be in a scene where the daughter attempts to understand how her parents, her father especially, must wrestle with shades of gray in a culture that only sees sin and white (and punishes accordingly). As the ripples of the internal separation continue, nearly every character is forced to draw and test the lines where personal integrity meet unfair, at times horrific, circumstances.
Joshua Marston’s THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD may be more muted in its criticism of culture, at least tonally, than is A SEPARATION, but it shares with Farhadi’s film the intergenerational cast of characters that allows it to explore how cultural traditions get imposed on—and eventually passed to—the young.
Set in Albania, the film introduces viewers to a world that is in many ways a hodgepodge of the modern and the ancient. Dad still delivers bread to local consumers via horse-drawn cart, but the kids play video games on console systems and send video messages to one another via the newest cellular phones. At first it appears as though the old ways and the new coexist fairly well, but when the patriarch of the family resolves a feud, Kanun (a set of oral laws dating back centuries) takes precedence over civil or political laws and influences the day-to-day life of the community members.
The theme of parental violence enmeshing and entrapping the young will draw inevitable comparisons to last year’s indie darling, WINTER’S BONE, but emotionallyTHE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD more resembles Marston’s feature film debut, MARIA FULL OF GRACE. It shares with that film a more detached, documentary-like curiosity in the logistics of the system being portrayed. How are intermediaries selected? Under what conditions are temporary amnesties (“besas”) offered and revoked? What happens when traditional gender roles are reversed? (Rudina comes home from a long day of “work” to chastise Nik for making a mess in the family home. Nik, by default, must try to nurture his younger brother who is caught at home with him.)
(* Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC. He is the editor of and a contributor to Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I and II (2008, 2011, Cambridge Scholars Publishing). He is also the editor and founder of 1More Film Blog.)
Strains of Confinement:
THE DAY HE ARRIVES
Egyptian-Spielberg, 11/7/2011, 4:15 PM
Egyptian-Spielberg, 11/8/2011, 7:15 PM
THREE AND A HALF
Egyptian-Spielberg, 11/5/2011, 1:00 PM
Chinese 1, 11/8/2011, 4:15 PM
Review By Katie Datko
A reoccurring motif in this year’s programming lineup is confinement. Sometimes it’s figurative like in Cristián Jiménez’s BONSÁI where Julio, the main character lives in self-imposed isolation. Other times it’s more literal, as with Luc Besson’s gala film,THE LADY, about Burma’s intrepid champion for democracy Aung San Suu Kyi or Jafar Panahi who managed to smuggle THIS IS NOT A FILM out of the country in a cake while awaiting the verdict of his trial in Iran. Two other films where this theme plays out is Hong Song-soo’s THE DAY HE ARRIVES and Naghi Nemati’s THREE AND A HALF.
In Hong’s film, the main character, Sungjoon (Jun-sang Yu) is trapped within the origami-like folds of a recurring plot. A former film director-turned-professor who comes back from the countryside to visit Seoul, he is part of a repetitive narrative that consists of banal conversations, chance encounters and uneasy relationships. Its black-and-white imagery at first seem dynamic, infusing energy into the storyline. But as each piece of the story unfolds, the relationship between the various parts become tenuous—the plot turns back on itself, almost but not quite to the point of being monotonous. Sungjoon is held captive by his inability to move forward, essentially swathed in an unending cycle of critical junctures that never meet any resolutions.
THREE AND A HALF is a stirringly claustrophobic film: three women on furlough from prison try to escape Iran. In interviews, director Nemati claims the women are convicts, but in the film itself, it’s never clear what their prison is—for one of the women, it’s a relationship, another, social constraints. Shot mostly in close-ups with a few mid-shots, the camera mirrors the suffocating space the main character, Hanieh, pregnant and sick, inhabits. She’s constricted not only by her actions, but by those of the men in her life. As the movie opens with a blurred close-up of Hanieh crying and gun shots in the background, it’s also the ambient sound that smothers us, louder than usual, reminding us of Hanieh’s instability.
In both films not much backstory is provided, yet in each film we get a sense of how the main characters’ pasts inform their present. Neither character is truly sympathetic—there is something unhinged about both Sungjoon and Hanieh. Each is a victim, captive by their own misdeeds. Watching them navigate their restrictions and limitations causes us to wonder if freedom is a possible or if it is an untenable illusion.
(* Katie Datko is an LA-based writer who has written for the L.A. Weekly, DailyOm.com and the LohDown on Science.)
An Apocalyptic Elegy:
THE TURIN HORSE
Chinese 6, 11/7/2011, 12:30 PM
Chinese 6, 11/9/2011, 1:00 PM
Review By Bernardo Rondeau
Few directors could conclude their oeuvre with a film about the end of the world and get away with it. The exception is Andrei Tarkovsky, whose grave and contemplative epics set the pace, if not quite the tone, for Béla Tarr and varied other “slow” filmmakers. Tarkovsky transitioned from damp, weathered Soviet mysticism to crisp, Baltic fatalism in THE SACRIFICE. Dying of cancer, exiled and working under the benefaction of Ingmar Bergman (while also employing Sven Nykvist, the brooding Swede’s cinematographer, and Erland Josephson, his leading man) Tarkovsky is certainly cut some slack for this often leaden epic of psychological and global catastrophe. Then there is Tarr.
The director appears to be in fine health, works in his home country and has a loyal stable of collaborators (composer Mihaly Vig, co-screenwriter László Krasznahorkai and all around co-conspirator Agnes Hranitzky). Perhaps that explains the lack of any distinct cause—THE SACRIFICE’s atom bomb—for the spellbinding immersions in miasmic effect that is THE TURIN HORSE. Regardless, if the filmmaker’s pledge to retire from filmmaking is to be trusted, the film brings to a triumphantly humble close an inimitable body of work that stretches over three decades.
Not quite a declarative full-stop, THE TURIN HORSE is an astoundingly lucid and assured crystallization of Tarr’s themes, tropes and climates. Purportedly about the creature who, suffering under the whip of its master, was embraced by Friedrich Nietzsche on the streets of Turin in the winter of 1889, THE TURIN HORSE is hardly the kind of “untold” or “secret life” story this kind of set-up would suggest. Is the film even about the Turin horse? Or is it about a horse whose suffering and decline, like that of his donkey cine-cousin Balthazar, stands in for a greater spiritual ache. Is it the proverbial Turin Horse? Does the film’s title designate a type rather than an individual? (Likewise, Nietzsche’s gesture has long been read by historians as the signal call of the philosopher’s descent into madness, though some particulars on this fateful encounter remain subject to speculation.)
Tarr locates the film in a landscape far removed from the sumptuous, Alpine splendor which Nietzsche adored. The film is almost entirely set in the single-room farmhouse shared by rangy Ohlsdorfer and his stern-faced daughter—proprietors of the film’s titular equine—the adjoining barn and, for exterior, the weathered stretch of land that encircles it, with rolling hills out of Anthony Mann by way of THE SEVENTH SEAL. The sole landmark is a well whose depths take on cosmic proportions at one of the film’s few turning points.
After a baritone voiceover, a rare piece of narration for Tarr, places the film in the context of the Nietzsche incident, the eponymous beast lunges through the black-and-white frame, hulking forward, whipped by bitter winds, dead leaves and the seasick drone of Vig’s strings. The father, driving the horse from his mount on the lorry, is a grizzled scrawl compared to the black mass of brawn and hair before him. This first shot is a trademark Tarr distillation: over one traveling take, a world is formed, peopled and set in motion. From this moment, Tarr sets a brief calendar: five days in five chapters. Father and daughter go about their grueling routines as small disruptions—the horse protests, a visitor in search of brandy spews an End Times dirge, gypsies descend and leave behind a troubling book—slowly give way to cataclysm as something wicked their way comes.
Though unlike Tarr’s prior single-set feature, 1985’s AUTUMN ALMANAC, the new film is entirely devoid of inter-relational conflicts, chamber intrigues or even much dialogue. This winter almanac, taking place across five days, has allegorical heft somewhere between Old Testament and Old World fable. The father is one-eyed and with a lame arm, scraggly and scrawny, and is often seen laying on his hard cot through Quattrocento perspective. The daughter, largely mute and tireless, labors inside the house. This Jeanne Dielman of the steppes is resolved to repetition: boiling potatoes, collecting water from the well, and dressing dad in a convolution of layers.
The film firmly inhabits the same forlorn, grey-skied, grimly-inhospitable hinterland of SATANTANGO, Tarr’s 1994 seven-and-a-half hour opus, which lies on the fringes of the dead-end villages of 1988’s DAMNATION and 2000’s WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES. All of these three prior films in some way envision a greater, communal space—a village, a bar, a police station. THE TURIN HORSE stays put in near total isolation. Outside, an agrarian dystopia. No crops, everything ashen and worn.
Tarr is a poet of the inclement and the film has a storm of mythic resolve. Whipping by day, howling at night, it is the film’s great special effect, second only to Tarr’s roaming camera which makes labyrinths of the Ohlsdorfer home’s open-plan. The world ofTHE TURIN HORSE is falling into ruin. (Perhaps this is the apocalypse’s next stop after devastating the vacated township of SATANTAGO.)
All the while the horse is quietly and devastatingly erased. Perhaps instead of Bresson’s burro, this film’s animal avatar is more similar to the the talisman-like whale carcass of WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES. Its commanding scale, disarming vulnerability, and incriminating silence making it a portentous emissary from the sublime.
Perhaps the film’s greatest revelation, amid the splendor of its coal-faced chiaroscuroand its bravura tracks, is the presence of a narrator, an omniscience. Does it bring a new understanding to Tarr’s prior films and help to lend an agency to this lingering, weightless camera which sees through floors (AUTUMN ALMANAC) and witnesses disparate events simultaneously (SATANTANGO)? If Tarr’s characters are always doomed to Sisyphean cycles, toiling in circles, being prey to charlatans, and trying to find exits from their diminished lives through despairing acts of petty criminality, what roles does this omniscience play?
SATANTANGO is Tarr’s most epic orchestration of his themes of rural alienation, foolhardy resolve and mud-splattered drudgery, and WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES its more elaborately-plotted, condensed variation. THE TURIN HORSE addresses these same themes with the clarity and concision of an elegy. Come armageddon, come.
(* Bernardo Rondeau is Coordinator of Film Programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He programmed the first-ever Béla Tarr retrospective in Los Angeles.)
A Calmly Observed Masterpiece:
ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA
Egyptian-Rigler, 11/6/2011, 1:30 PM
Chinese 1, 11/10/2011, 3:45 PM
Review By Maria Trakovsky
ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA, a new film by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is a moody, meditative and sensitively shot masterpiece that takes place in the Anatolian grasslands. It is both a calmly observed, slowly unfolding mystery about a nighttime police investigation and a contemplative study of various moral, ethical, philosophical and more routine questions that we deal with in our lives.
The film defies genres and speaks lyrically about subjects that many people avoid: illness, death, regret, memory, guilt, contrition, sacrifice and sorrow. There is also humor and hope in this work. Although the title suggests a fairytale, there are no clear heroes, villains, or an onscreen love story (unless you count a policeman’s cellphone ringtone—the melody from LOVE STORY). Instead, what Ceylan establishes is minimal: a group of police officials, including a medical doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) and a busy urbane prosecutor (Taner Birsel), take two suspects on a trip, traveling in a procession of cars on dark, desolate roads. With this eerie nightscape, lit only by the harsh lights of the vehicles and some sudden lightning from a passing storm, he quickly creates a strange, saturnine atmosphere.
This film is an invitation to join a police team on an outing that turns out to be a very long night’s journey into day. Many scenes are full of an uneasy foreboding and an almost supernatural quality. Some are not for the faint of heart. At first, we barely notice the main prisoner as he is introduced, sitting in the back seat of a police car. But when given time to study him, we see an exhausted, sunken face full of profound suffering and a resigned martyrdom. He looks as if he has just stepped off an El Greco painting. We sympathize with him immediately, and are surprised at ourselves for doing so. He is so extremely tired that he constantly dozes off. The policemen guarding him don’t look much better. There is a weariness to them, and circles under their eyes. Most men in this tale are spent and burnt out by life, but take this as an almost normal state of affairs.
While Ceylan uses his signature spare style for much of the film, there are a few unexpected zooms that jolt the viewer and magnify the overall unnerving tone. As the night stretches on, the police grow increasingly tired and agitated. The situation escalates. As tempers flare, only the highest-ranking member of the group, the Prosecutor Nusret (who is haunted by his own private sorrow), keeps order in the night. The ultimate frailty of these men is brought into constant relief against the endless expanse of fields and hills, with whispering trees, grasses and streams.
This director is able to make things look both real and ethereal at once, and to illuminate several lives for us in the process. His characters struggle with universal concerns: family, career, love and loss. But they also deal, as we all do, with life’s little chores: the need to pick up a prescription for a relative, for instance. Ceylan easily blends the mundane with the sublime.
As dawn nears, the team decides to take a break at a nearby village. When their host offers them a chance to refuel with some lamb, hot tea and conversation, he brings up another classic problem that cuts across countless cultures and eras: the village youth are emigrating, leaving the countryside for cities, he complains.
There are very few women in this film, but when they do appear, they do so to great effect, as in this village sequence. A young woman offers some tea to the tired travelers in a scene so full of beauty and magic that it could easily be in a fairytale. Is it real? Hope flickers as does unsteady light from an oil lamp. A short dream sequence adds mystery to this segment and intensifies its phantasmagoric force.
Ceylan supplies his film with generous doses of humor. He manages to overlay the film’s funniest moments onto some of its most chilling mise-en-scène, with hilarious social commentary on police and their procedures. We may also laugh at the contrasts between what is seen onscreen and what the Prosecutor “objectively” describes in his fancy dictation for an official police report. In this way, the director teases us about the “official-ness” of all bureaucracy.
As it winds down, ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA moves into inhabited spaces: streets, buildings, rooms, corridors and offices. Everything is demystified by daylight, but empathy and hope continue to coexist with violence. A cook feeds a hungry boy breakfast. The doctor’s final actions may also be seen as an act of kindness and pity. In the end, Ceylan gives us the freedom of interpretation, rather than a moral lesson.
(* Maria Trakovsky is an artist and educator living in Los Angeles. She holds a Master’s degree in Cinema Studies from NYU and can be reached at email@example.com.)