Wednesday, September 12, 2007

‘Cherry’ gives a taste of what simple, beautiful cinema is like

Al just reviewed "Gabbeh" from notable Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. I’m following up the Iranian cinema discussion by looking at another remarkable film “Taste of Cherry” by Abbas Kiarostami. This review was published in Evening Weekly but since it’s very much Baiskoaf material why not put it here as well.

Mr. Badii has a plan. A dangerous plan. A plan that would strike anyone as shocking.

He drives around the outskirts of Tehran to find someone to bury him the next morning after he commits suicide. Knowing how reluctant one would be to fulfill his request he has money to offer.

The question now is simple: Will he kill himself in the end?

That was all I knew about Taste of Cherry when I first heard of it. It fascinated me. It sounded like something I had not heard before. And it turned out to be unlike anything I had seen before.

Coming out of the new Iranian cinema, and from one of its pioneers Abbas Kiarostami it made perfect sense the film landed joint top prize in 1997 at Cannes, the most prestigious international film festival.

The film’s protagonist Badii, a middle-aged Iranian man, drives through the streets and witnesses unemployed people. He gets to the outskirts where he meets three potential “candidates”, different in age and status but similar in their response to his request: unwilling.

He first offers a ride to a young recruit walking to the camp. The kid’s initial suspicion about Badii attempting a homosexual pick up translates into horror when Badii finally spills his quest.

He then approaches a seminarian who tries to convince him to reconsider the decision and appreciate life on religious grounds.

Finally he encounters an old taxidermist who himself had retracted suicidal tendencies after beginning to admire the little pleasures of life.

This does not give away anything though. In fact it is just the gist of this haunting meditation on life.

Cherry does not provide any explanation to why he wants to end it all. It avoids being preachy and pretentious. In other words Badii does not look high at the sky, lift his arms and lash out his life’s miseries. That would definitely defeat the whole purpose of the film.

His expression-less face alone says it. He is lifeless and alienated from the world. He does not say much and listens to what others have to say about his fate. The irony here is the main character remains vague and the supporting characters are fleshed out. Kiarostami gets away with it because that I believe is why the film works so well.

Although everyone Badii meets react to his situation with disagreement they approach the matter differently. The dialogues that take place between them are eloquent and understated. The final conversation, or the taxidermist’s monologue rather, is particularly charming. He shares his own attempt at suicide and that the taste of cherry revived his faith in life. Listening to his experience itself is an inspirational moment in a film which basically questions the human existence.

Famous film critic Leonard Maltin points out Taste of Cherry is “A contemplation of humanity quite unlike any other captured on film.”

Humanity and simplicity are indeed the trademarks of Iranian cinema. Only a filmmaker like Majid Majidi could pull off a film worthy of international acclaim out of a story as straightforward as two kids coping with the loss of a pair of shoes (Children of Heaven), while Mohsen Makhmalbaf proves special effects and big budgets are needless to make a visually stunning film (Gabbeh).

Hence, Iranian cinema is testimony to cinema’s infinite possibilities. Given the limited resources available and the existing political suppression, the country yet brings out some of the most realistic and thought-provoking films in world cinema.

Taste of Cherry is indeed thought-provoking. Bittersweet and lyrical, it will stay with you for a long time.

It is the sort of film that inspires budding filmmakers: primarily three conversations with three different perspectives thrown in, a minimal plotline with a challenging theme, and a shoestring budget production with non-professional actors.

I really hope it gets seen and, hopefully, be appreciated by as many cinema-lovers as possible.

By Shaari

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The colours of cinema

A gabbeh is a Persian carpet woven in exquisite colours and designs that tell a story. In the film of the same name by Iran’s premiere auteur Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the carpet becomes a central metaphor not only for depicting the harsh but picturesque life lead by hardy Iranian nomads but, indeed, cinema itself. As wisps of their lives are etched lovingly onto the gabbeh, so unfolds a lyrical saga of extraordinary beauty and depth.

A young woman, also called Gabbeh, longs to unite with a mysterious horseman, a stranger who follows her clan in the distance and howls in the full moon. But Gabbeh’s authoritarian father tells her that she cannot marry until her ageing uncle, a teacher and a poet, ties the knot first. This is not a condition to be taken lightly, since he has a very specific mate in mind: one who can sing like a canary. In the event, the lovable bachelor does find an exact match, but daily strife continues to delay Gabbeh’s own marriage. Her mother gives birth, her sister dies, and a baby goat is born to their livestock. In the end, the young woman and her horseman can’t wait any longer; they elope, with Gabbeh’s father following the rebellious couple with a gun.

This tale of forbidden love takes shape through a series of unforgettable images. Against the backdrop of stark landscapes, women and children go about their daily lives in intricately embroidered costumes, as they dye the wool for their carpets from the rich hues of wild exotic flowers and tall grasses. The long focus cinematography captures every detail as these nomads camp out in lush valleys, cross muddy, overflowing rivers, and trek through the barren snowfields of southeastern Iran.

As with other notable Iranian films of the 1990s, especially the works of Abbas Kiorastami, Gabbeh plays with the categories of documentary and fiction. While the elaborate composition of Makhmalbaf’s cinematography evokes painterly traditions, the use of mainly non-actors in the film recalls Italian neo-realism. In fact the director began Gabbeh as a documentary on carpet makers but, along the way, apparently changed his mind. What we are left with is a rich tapestry of realism, fiction and fantasy, and what are surely some of the most endearing images in the history of cinema since the invention of colour filmstock.

Iranian cinema has captured the hearts of film theorists and art film festivals throughout the world. One of the reasons for this might be the rejection by Iranian filmmakers of the Bollywood model to develop, instead, a unique cultural aesthetic, something directors in South Asia, including the Maldives, seem unwilling to try. Indeed, I’ve heard an influential film “expert” in this country openly declaring Iranian cinema as “meaningless”. I also understand another film “consultant” rubbished Iranian films in front of a group of young Maldivian film novices. Prevailing film sensibilities in this country, then, seem to discourage people from enjoying alternative cinemas developed by artists of exceptional vision.

I first saw Gabbeh in a cold, grubby film theatre in 1996. It was the second Iranian film I had seen and I came out of the building, with a small group of film-lovers, in a state of exhilaration. Gabbeh was proof that art cinema was very much alive, and that films could touch us at an aethetic, intellectual and human level.

In one of the scenes from the film, a characters shouts: “Life is colour!” With a seemingly simple but deft stroke of artistic genius, Makhmalbaf appears to have captured that colour in Gabbeh, which to me is the equivalent of a live painting, a passionate love song to cinema itself.
Note: More on the works of Makhmalbaf and his family of filmmakers on:
By Al

Monday, September 3, 2007

“Lost” season 2 – an allegory to current human conditions

Have you read about the story where someone spent the whole of his/her life in a cave but did not even have a clue that the outside was more beautiful because he/she was afraid of venturing out into the unknown?
Lost season 2 is something like that. If you don’t want spoilers ahead, then don’t read after this line though I am not going into specific details. I would just like to raise two key allegorical points which captured my interest:
1) The fact that we humans will continue to do something for how long it takes as far as we have a notion or belief that we have to do that thing for our survival, even though there is no evidence or proof to support that notion. This factor is reflected in the button-pushing in the hatch.

2) The fact that a human being who has been subject to suffering all his life and grows old this way will have no human sympathy or empathy for the younger protégés and will not stop at making your protégé suffer the same just because you grew old suffering that way and you feel that anybody else do not deserve to live happily when you had wasted your own life. This factor emerges when the guy is kept in the dark and goes on pushing the button for three years, at the end of which the elder guy plans to leave the younger guy behind even though he will be left pushing the button forever.
I think this particular mentality is very much evident in our parents’ and grandparents’ generation.
One of my friends told me that during the heyday in the hippy 1970s his mother wore short skirts that would have put the Pussycat Dolls to shame and used to hang out at the “Ice ge” (our local pub and disco in Male’ at the time of former President Ibrahim Nasir’s liberal and secular era, damn Gayoom), but that she has now worn the buruga and joined the Adaalath Party and now doesn’t want him to have fun.
He says that though he is 18 years of age, his parents have refused to give him a private room in his home because his parents feel that they will go to hell if he has sex outside marriage because they provided him the opportunity (the room) to commit extra-marital sex in the first place!
How hypocritical can that be. After enjoying all the pleasures they could, his parents do not want him to enjoy the same. It’s like how most extremists’ minds work: if you are miserable, then all others must remain miserable, too.
Some of my friends say that “Lost” season 1 is better because the “picking up the pieces” and “coping with the situation” was more interesting than season 2 which concentrates on the mysteries surrounding all aspects of life on the island.
I can see their point. I am not sure which season is my favorite but am very much looking forward to season 3 but Hursheed has already warned me there’s a dragging love story part in the middle of season 3 before the pace picks up again towards the end.

- Hilath

“Surf’s up” stays true to surf culture and spirit

Another animated film involving penguins? Yes, at first, I also thought of skipping this film. And the fact that Surf's Up was about surfing did not initially grab my interest because penguins seemed to be so exhaustively used by recent films such as March of the Penguins and Happy Feet (both of which I haven't seen yet). However, right from the start, it was obvious that real life surfers were behind this effort. This includes six-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater and Rob Machado providing voice overs for some of the characters. Though the plot is formulaic (little guy takes on the arrogant champ), the film was engaging for me as a surfer because the film very much reflects the spirit and culture among the surfing community, and the filmmakers even poke fun at themselves and their “dumb culture.” I wouldn’t mind watching the film again as it was funny and humorous throughout.
- Hilath

"Disturbia": engaging premise but…

Like Jeepers Creepers, Disturbia has an engaging beginning, with skillful direction, to create a most suspenseful atmosphere. However, what begins as a dissection of human psychology, soon becomes yet just another formulaic horror film.

- Hilath

Sunday, September 2, 2007

If you make it, will they come?

I had a heated discussion with a close friend of mine (Ya) a few nights ago... the point of contention was "If you make a genre breaking Maldivian (Dhivehi) Film, would you be able to make a profit - even break even?".

My response was a resounding 'NO'.

Ya had a different opinion though.

According to Ya, IF the film had a decent story, decent acting and was put together by (even) a half decent director, then it would gain an audience and could even stand the chance to become a 'blockbuster'... a runaway hit! This could be done with just ONE such film Ya argued.

Wouldn't that be something?

Are we ever likely to see a (figurative) Maldivian 'Trainspotting'? If so, would it be popular? A Box Office hit?

I disagreed with Ya - I think that, while current films are popular-ish (arguably), if you break the mold, then you're making a film for a different audience altogether.

THAT audience has been let down SO many times - it'll take much more than one decent film to get them back in theaters... it's going to take a lot more more-than-decent, alternate genre films with consistently improving quality, AND a conducive/comfortable/high-quality environment to enjoy the said films in, to build their faith and bring then (back?!?!?) in to cinemas.

That's my opinion...