Homicide -- A Bewildering Morality Play

                                        I became a fan of David Mamet’s writing and directing prowess, ever since I watched his foul-mouthed, perplexed drama “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992). He takes a generic plot and turns it into something intricate with punchy dialogues. “Homicide” (1991) was one of Mamet’s lesser know ‘Grade-A’ work that is as compelling and complex as his prestigious “House of Games” (1987). ‘Homicide’ is a morality play which starts off as a police thriller. As in other Mamet’s films, the protagonist of ‘Homicide’ takes a journey of self-discovery while descending into life’s dark side.

                                       Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) is a veteran homicide detective, who has great skills at hostage negotiation (they call him “The Orator”). He has twenty two citations for valor and volunteers to go first through a dangerous doorway. The movie starts off with a botched FBI mission, where a dangerous drug dealer (Ving Rhames) escapes killing a cop. Bobby and his partner/friend Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) were assigned to catch the drug dealer and cop killer. Gold is defined by his specialized skills and gives very little thought to his Jewish identity except for when a annoyed police commissioner calls him a “kike”.

                                       On the way to catch the drug dealer, Bobby gets side-tracked as he stumbles onto a crime scene, which has handled poorly by two rookie cops. An elderly Jewish woman has been gunned down. She runs a corner store in the poor black neighborhood. People who gather near the crime scene say that the woman might have been killed because she had a fortune in the basement. But, Bobby isn’t interested on who or why the lady was killed. He just waits for other detectives to arrive so that he could go on to catch his drug dealer. While waiting, Bobby sees the old lady’s wealthy son and granddaughter (Rebecca Pidgeon). When Bobby returns to the precinct he comes to know that he has been taken off the case and assigned to investigate the murder of that old woman.

                                        It seems the old lady was mother of Dr. Klein (J.S. Block), an influential man amongst the Jewish leaders. The family has pulled strings to assign Gold to the case as he is Jew. Bobby Gold is very angry initially since he has been reassigned and when he is called by Klein’s, claiming that someone was shooting at their house from the nearby rooftop, he’s very skeptical. Bobby makes a call from Klein’s house and profanely talks about their wealth and anti-semitic paranoia. Only later he notices that his phone conversation has been overheard by the granddaughter. He feels guilt for his persecution and comes face-to-face with his own feelings about Jewish identity. From there, Bobby begins a journey that draws him into the shadowy corners of Chicago’s Zionist activists and white supremacists.

                                       The protagonists in a Mamet‘s movie more or less goes through the same experiences, although it is presented in a fascinating manner: Mamet’s heroes likes to talk. They speak in a profane language all their own, but at the same it is eloquent, as if it’s the poetry for tough-guys; Mamet’s heroes always get cheated by people they think they could rely on; and his heroes give up on people/friends, who have stood for them all their life. “Homicide’s” protagonist also has similar identity crisis, but things her are more gripping and complex because of the racial dynamics. Although there is no outright racial prejudice, the cops don’t see themselves as a united front. Sullivan’s ‘Irishness’ is joked about, Gold’s heritage is often dug up, and Gold uses the ‘N-word’ in a moment of anger, and there are also homophobic slurs. So, all these things play a significant role in Bobby Gold’s later violations.

                                       The phone call from the Klein’s house and a conversation with a Rabbi in the library triggers an internal debate within Gold that makes him to go frantically search for his heritage. The sudden change in tone at this point is well handled, although it has the dangers of devolving into a ridiculous conspiracy theory thriller. As a viewer, we initially find it hard to believe in Gold’s change in character. Within a matter of hours, he becomes an extremist ready to torch the shop of white supremacist, but Mantegna’s restrained finely brings out the other character that has slept within his mind (it is alluded that Gold has no family).  Mamet has thematically convinced us with the primary characters’ change, but still it is a bit psychologically unconvincing. However, this little flaw is washed off by the movie’s unsettling, film noir ending. It is a pessimistic as well as an ambitious ending. Bobby Gold is left alone, bruised internally and externally, and the devil (a prisoner) in ‘blue suit’ passes him, relishing at the fact that he has taught Gold, ‘the nature of evil.’

                                       “Homicide” (101 minutes) starts off like a police procedural, but works into ideas and themes that finally offer us a portrait of humankind, unable to see past its self-made racial divides. It shows how segmentation and hatred could easily claim a person’s integrity.


The Pledge -- A Haunting, Oblique Thriller

                                           Sean Penn’s “The Pledge” (2001) opens in a dry scorched landscape, where a man talks to himself, as if he is gripped by madness. The birds’ cacophonous sounds and the man’s ravings hint us that this film is going to have bleak mood and a morally ambiguous plot structure. “The Pledge” was based on 1958 novel by Swiss mystery writer Friedrich Durrenmatt. The novel was adapted in the same year (known as “It Happened in Broad Day Light”) by Hungarian director Ladislao Vajda. Sean Penn and his script writers Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski has set the story in wintry Nevada, US. The film’s primary character was done by Jack Nicholson (one of his most underrated performances).

                                         The movie opens with a retirement party for Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson). He is a first-class detective and respected by his colleagues. During the party, news comes about the discovery of a dreadful murder:  A 8 year old girl’s body has been found in the snow-bound mountainside. The little girl, Ginny has been sexually assaulted and murdered in a brutal manner. Jerry wants to accompany the detectives, even though he is about to be retired in six hours. Jerry visits the child’s parents to tell them about sad news. He is confronted by child’s mother (Patricia Clarkson), who asks Jerry to swear on a cross -- made by their murdered little girl – that he would find the killer.

                                        Soon, the police have a man in custody, who was seen in the crime scene. The accused man, a mentally-challenged Indian (Benecio Del Toro) has previously committed sexual assaults. The young lead detective (Aaron Eckhart) gets in the investigative room and soon coerces out a confession from the guy. While celebrating for solving Ginny’s murder, the accused Indian commits suicide by taking over a cop’s gun. Ginny’s case is closed. However, Jerry isn’t convinced. He thinks a serial killer is at work. He cancels his fishing trip and goes on to question the town folks where Ginny lived.

                                       A picture drawn by Ginny totally convinces Jerry that the killer is definitely not an Indian. He also pieces together information about two other little girls in nearby towns (one disappeared and other murdered brutally like Ginny). All the three little girls are in the same age group, has blonde hair and wore red dress when they faced this hideous monster. However, Jerry’s former boss (Sam Shepard) is reluctant to re-open the case. So, Jerry moves to right in the middle of the triangulation of locations where the three girls were murdered. He buys a service station to stay busy. He later befriends a local waitress (Robin Wright) and her little blonde-haired daughter Chrissy (Pauline Roberts).

                                     “The Pledge” although starts like a generic detective thriller, it isn’t. It is a character study and a psychological thriller. The film starts with a familiar storyline – a veteran detective dealing with a brutal murder, but from then on the film unravels as a character-driven thriller rather than a ‘whodunit’ mystery. The script is a low-key study in obsession, dread and paranoia. The characterizations are etched out with greater restraint and subtlety. The dark subtexts to Jerry’s actions are unraveled in a subtle manner. He keeps the blond-haired Chrissy as bait, even though he seems to care for the girl. Jerry plays father-figure, but when the girl wants to buy a red dress, he encourages her to do so. Jerry’s relationship with Chrissy and her mother is constructed slowly and perfectly. The film’s moral ambiguity starts from here as the viewers will constantly ask themselves: does he love Chrissy like a daughter or is he just risking her life to silently lure the killer?

                                       The ending is bold and distressing as it doesn’t give us any easy answers and a neat wrap-up. The climax might frustrate a lot of viewers but it is lot better than cheap finishes in murder mysteries and it makes us understand to the fullest extent about Jerry’s inherent character flaw. Cinematographer Chris Menges’ subdued, grayish wintry look and the scorched rural-based looks are all visually poetic. Penn’s movies (from “Indian Runner” to “Into the Wild”) always like to play out the themes of vengeance and obsession. In ‘Pledge’ he never allows the narrative to meander and gives us little details and actions that may not look much on their own, but adds up in a significant way towards the end. With a trademark devilish squint and deep-set of eyes, Jack Nicholson as Jerry gives us a subtle performance that is deeply felt. Nicholson gradually brings out the aspects of a lawman that is utterly driven by instincts. Great numbers of prominent Hollywood actors appear for few minutes of screen time, including Vanessa Redgrave, Harry Dean Stanton, Mickey Rourke, Helen Mirren, Benecio Del Toro, and Lois Smith.
                                        “The Pledge” (124 minutes) is a haunting thriller that is more ambiguous and enigmatic than the usual Hollywood police procedural. The film boasts an excellent performance from Nicholson and a tragic mood which refuses to wash way quickly. 


Gomorrah -- A Powerful Alternative to Romanticized Mob Movies

                                        Movie medium have always exhibited a fascination towards organized crime. The gangster genre achieved prominence in Hollywood in the early thirties with movies like “Public Enemy” (1931), “Scarface” (1932) etc. The genre reached an exalted state with Coppola’s “The Godfather”. Although Coppola, Scorsese (“Mean Streets”, “Goodfellas”, “Casino”) and many other top directors chucked out the romanticized visions to give us more pointed criticisms, the characters (in those films) were made so colorful and the violent scenes were excellently choreographed that it sometimes made us to overlook the sharp observations. There is no doubt that “Godfather”, “Scarface”, and “City of God” are all classic works of cinema, but we are little enchanted by the activities of anti-heroes ‘Michael Corleone’ and ‘Tony Montana’. Matteo Garrone’s Italian crime drama “Gomorrah” (2008) doesn’t have any of those glamorized visions of mob. The title of the film refers to both the ancient biblical city of sin and ‘Camorra’ gang of Naples, Italy – the ruthless crime syndicate which hasn’t gained much attention in cinema.

                                     “Gomorrah” was based on controversial book by journalist Roberto Saviano. After its publication in 2006, Saviano got death threats for ‘Camorra’ crime family for detailed exposition of their activities, and later he was permanently placed under police protection. The Sicilian branch of Italian mafia got extended to America and gained prominence in Puzo’s novels, whereas the Camorra clan mostly works in and around Naples. It consists of 100 or so organized gangs that are constantly at each others throats. The plot loosely intertwines five story-lines, where the individuals’ lives are touched by the Camorra gang. The film opens in the blue glow of tanning salon, where four men are brutally shot. Who and Why? We don’t know but we could feel that it’s just another mob death that has been going on for generations.

                                     The film takes place in the Scampi quarter in Naples suburb. The suburb -- one of the world’s largest open-air drug markets -- is the best example for disastrous urban planning, where there is neither light nor space for the inhabitants. The narrow alleys when looked from the top might resemble a honey-comb maze, and the crooked residential buildings resemble the ancient Aztec Pyramid. The five story-lines concentrated in the plot are: a 13 year old boy (Salvatore Abruzzese) joins the local gang for excitement and money, but only later realizes the consequences; a soft-hearted money runner for the gang, who grows increasingly wary about his job; a talented tailor who works in Camorra controlled dressmaking factory, secretly teaches his competitors (Chinese) too; two trigger-happy young boys, who wants to form their own gang; and a smooth-talking businessman (part of Camorra Gang), who with the help of a junior executive dumps barrels of toxic waste near the residence of under-privileged.

                                    The movie starts on a bit of false note because the hyper-stylized violence in the opening sequence doesn’t fit into the tone of the story. May be the sequence was conjured to lure upon the viewers. The end credits lists various ills done by Camorra gang (including 4,000 murders in the 30 years), but had this been displayed at the start of film, it could have assisted us to understand the incidents and characters. Repeated viewings are a good option and it can help you to comprehend the story-lines. First time around, I was severely disappointed with “Gomorrah” since I expected a “City of God” or “Scarface” like gangster saga. But, subsequent viewings helped me to connect the dots and to understand its grim world-view. It later captivated me, since I liked the lack of flamboyant excesses of a traditional mob movie.

                                    “Gomorrah” can be best experienced if the viewer doesn’t concentrate too much on the plot (like what or why is it happening) and rather follow the characters’ movement. Corruption, murder, money and drugs are at the forefront like any other gangster cinema, but we don’t get the detailed explanations about this crime enterprise. The powerful and rich heads of the gang hide under shadows of mid-level bosses, who don’t live a large life like ‘Tony Montana’. The film reminds me of David Simon’s hard-hitting TV series “The Wire” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” (2000). Like ‘Wire’ the film shows how teenage drug dealers guarding their corners is interconnected with the cash counting mid-level bosses to high-level, million-dollar waste disposing businessmen.

                                    In “Gomorrah” there are no favorite characters to root for and the documentary-like camera work may put off most viewers. But, that exactly seems to be the idea of director Garrone. He doesn’t wants us give the camaraderie feeling about organized crime. There are also no neat resolutions and easy answers. Writer Saviano says “It's not the movie world that scans the criminal world for the most interesting behavior. The exact opposite is true”. These words are detailed in one story line, where two young guys play at being ‘Tony Montana’ and in the next scene lives their fantasy by robbing African crack-dealers.

                                  Strip clubs, weirdly structured real estate buildings, sweat shops and toxic wastes dumped quarries – the Italy we see in “Gomorrah” looks like a snake pit. However, the unflinching view of the ugly mob seems universal as every city in this world has its own version of ‘Camorra’. It clearly depicts how lawlessness and corruption itself becomes a powerful ‘system’, which pervades positive growth at every level. 


Starred Up -- An Unflinching and Soulful Prison Survival Drama

                                            David MacKenzie’s “Starred Up” (2013) opens with a young man, entering the confines of a prison. He is strip-checked, given new clothes and shown into his cell. Immediately after entering the cell, he melts a toothbrush and sticks a razor blade on one end, and then unscrews the tube light to hide his new weapon. This wordless opening scene makes you feel that it’s going to be one hell of a gritty prison drama like “Carandiru”, “Hunger”, “A Prophet” and “Shawshank Redemption” (without the redemption part). Such instincts don’t go wrong as the movie displays the grimness of prison life with an unflinching eye. The film hits at all the usual themes of prison drama – brawling, police corruption, sexual tension – but it does it all with a naturalism.

                                       “Starred Up” is the term given to the process by which loathsome young offenders are moved early to adult prison. 19 year old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is escorted through assorted prison hallways and arrives at a solo cell in high-risk section. The little yellow room with little furnishings and high window conveys a nauseating feeling, but Eric seems to be used to it as he has spent most of his life in some state institution. Soon after his arrival, Eric nearly kills one of the black inmates and beats up the prison guards. Prison therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend) attempts to rehabilitate Eric, but he is met with strong resistance.

                                     The only person who is able to control Eric is Neville (Ben Mendolsohn), Eric’s father who has been incarcerated for life. Neville is higher up in the prison gang and he displays unique methods to reduce Eric into a beseeching small boy. He asks him to join in Oliver’s class, where the prison’s tough cases go through anger management. While Oliver attempts to reform Eric, corrupted and dangerous elements like the warden (Sam Spruell) wants to ‘warehouse him’ or else finish him off by making it look like a suicide.

                                   The heavily accented British slang tinged with prison code words is really hard to follow, but director David MacKenzie have kept language in the secondary place as the story dynamics are played out perfectly in obvious physical terms. Every prison film has its own surrogate father-son relationship, but here it is given with a twist as the relationship becomes biological. The father-son bonding also doesn’t happen in a conventional manner as both the characters feel an embarrassment to recognize the relationship. It seems only feeling the father-son share is anger. The script is written by Jonathan Asser, who has his own work experiences as a prison therapist. So, there is authenticity in the way the therapy sessions unfold as all the alpha-males go through their emotions. The fictional therapist Oliver is shown as a guy who has his own set of anger problems. He seems to be infected by the prisoner’s problems, while trying to instill some hope.

                                   The father/son bond wavers into some scenes of melodrama (becomes a little sentimental), but for the most part it is naturalistic and soulful. The graphic violence doesn’t look exploitative. O’Connell gives a robust performance as the volatile and scary Eric. His on-screen behavior is too raw to categorize it as acting. Although O’ Connell isn’t physically intimidating like Tom Hardy in “Bronson”, he certainly looks dangerous especially in the way his character fights back without thinking about consequences. Tremendous Australian actor Mendelsohn is equally belligerent as his character tries to regain parental respect in a clumsy manner.

                                   Prisons are designed to deter the violence in society. “Starred Up” shows how hard it is to discourage violence and abuse, and instill hope inside prisons. The powerful performances and gritty script makes up for the flaws of this predictable story.      


12:08, East of Bucharest -- A Terrific Dry Comedy on the Failed Ambitions of Eastern Europe

                                      Dry comedy movies from Eastern Europe seem compatible with the damp, drab surroundings. The institutional mediocrity of the small towns in Eastern Europe brings out the best out of their cinema. Young Romanian film-maker Corneliu Porumboiu’s “12:08, East of Bucharest” (2006) takes place in such an atmosphere, where realism and politics echoes even in the smallest of events. The title refers to the alleged time on 22 Dec.1989, when Romania’s communist regime shattered. It is referenced as the time when the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu flew from his presidential palace, as shown on live TV. Director Corneliu got the idea for making this film, when he saw a local TV station hosting a program that looked back at the events of 22 Dec. 1989. He shot this movie on a very modest budget, which went on to win ‘Camera d’Or’ at Cannes in 2006.

                                   “12:08 East of Bucharest” opens with the image of a glistening Christmas tree amidst the concrete jungle in an empty Stalinist town square. It is early morning on 22 Dec. 2005, and the street lights throughout the city are gradually turned off. Then, we are introduced to three morally exhausted men. Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), an alcoholic history teacher, who has spent the previous night on a bar. He owes money to everybody. His only friend is a Chinese shop owner, whom he demeans with racial slurs when he is inebriated. On 22 Dec. he is about to attend a local TV show about the 16th anniversary of the revolution. Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban) is the arrogant host of local TV show. He wants to establish that the revolution somehow sparked in his town. His topic for that day’s show is: “Was there or was there not a revolution in our town?”

                                  After few troubles he scrapes up two guests for the show: history teacher and an elderly grump, Emanoli Piscoli (Mircea Andreescu). Piscoli is a pensioner, widower, and likes to wear the Santa Claus attire in the Christmas season. The old man also battles with the school kids in neighborhood, who often lights firecrackers outside his door. In the film’s second half, the hilarious live TV discussion starts with the two oddball guests and the pompous TV host’s burning question leads to on-camera squabbles.

                                First-time director Corneliu first subtly sets up the personalities of the three primary characters through small conversations and expressions. Like in many Eastern European films, the personal flaws of the characters reflect the larger failings of the system. The dry humor comes from the reactions of these characters, when phone callers in TV show frantically swear that the revolution never came to their town. On one hand, Manescu tells his patriotism; on how he and his deceased friends sparked the revolution in the town square, while on the other hand, the phone callers constantly debunk Manescu’s telltales. Meanwhile, Piscoci obliviously tries to build a paper boat. The deadpan tone reaches its peak in these scenes.

                                 Director Corneliu’s minimalist comedy establishes that in many ways the town hasn’t changed than it was under the communist regime. It tells that the 12:08 on 22 Dec is just a time stamp that no more holds relevance for young Romanians, as August 15th, 1947 does for young Indians. The new regimes might proclaim, theoretically, that it’s a dividing mark between tyranny and freedom, but from a practical perspective, nothing much changes. The director also tries to indict the entire Romanian community for reeling in passivity.

                                Corneliu silently poses a most important question within the TV show’s question: "Was there a revolution or not in our town?" He tries to ask: ‘what the so-called revolution really accomplished?’ The director also hints at the circular structure in history or in our personal foibles. The movie starts with lights turning off at the dawn of 22nd Dec and the end with the street lights getting turned on. In an early scene, history teacher Manescu angrily remarks to his failed students: “You can’t even cheat properly”. During the live TV show, Maescu becomes the guy who can’t cheat his audiences well. Eventually the film suggests that history is itself a joke because its inherent circular structure makes people to face the same problems that disrupt progress.

                                  “12:08 East of Bucharest” (85 minutes) isn’t a laugh-out loud funny movie. It uses deadpan comedy to amply reflect on history, people’s short memories and people’s perceptions. 


Belle -- A Thought-Provoking Period Drama on Racism and Sexism

                                       In the opening scene of Amma Asante’s “Belle” (2013), a British Naval officer (Matthew Goode) enters a dingy place and shockingly takes his hats off to pay respect to a black woman and a girl. He remarks, “How lovely she is. So much of her mother”. This scene conveys us that it’s not just another period piece about 18th century racism. And our beliefs are not ruined until the last image of film, where a portrait (drawn in 1779), shows two young women standing side by side in a garden. This period drama uses concepts that are familiar from Jane Austen books and also laces it with an anxiety-filled historical episode. As in many of the ‘based-on-true-story’ movies, ‘Belle’ also has fictional enhancements, for the sake of providing dramatic tension.

                                    Dido is the child of a slave and a British naval officer John Lindsay. After the mother’s death, the young girl is snatched from the slums by her father and left at the care of Lindsay’s Great Uncle Lord Mansfeld (Tom Wilkinson) – Britain’s Chief of Justice. The Lord and Lady Mansfeld (Emily Watson) are initially reluctant to raise a mixed-race love child in their aristocratic world, but they eventually accept her, although she isn’t allowed to dine with family when guests are being entertained. Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) grows alongside another castaway child, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Elizabeth is like a surrogate sister to Dido, but when they both reach a marriageable age, complication arises.

                                 Dido’s father dies at sea, leaving her a sizable amount of dowry, but the prospects of finding a husband  remains slim. Elizabeth has a status, thanks to her color, but not a penny to her name. A wicked Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) comes with her sons – James (Tom Felton) and Oliver (James Norton) and possible suitors for the girls. Lady Ashford is a shameless social climber, and her younger son Oliver woos Dido, partly because of her dowry. But, Dido is smitten with John Davinier (Sam Reid), an idealistic young man, studying law under Judge Mansfeld. Through Davinier, Dido also comes to know about the case of Zong slave ship massacre, on which Lord Mansfeld is soon about to pass the judgment. The case also opens Dido’s eyes about slavery, which she experienced from a distance.

                               ‘Belle’ is not about being black in the 18th century; it is also about state of women era. Although, in the environment of status and property, these white women lead a rich life, they are eventually auctioned off to the highest bidder. A beautiful woman without dowry money is eventually cast off from the rich people’s social circles. The script by Misan Sagay shows how men of that era used women to climb socially and slaves, in terms of wealth. However, the script has enough restraint to not show that every man is incapable of love. Tom Wilkinson’s Lord Mansfeld is created with such complexity. His character legally tries to evaluate the value of human life, while at the same time he is portrayed as a kind and loving uncle. Another charm of script is the way it portrays the relationship between Dido and Elizabeth. The only defect in the script is that it creates a filmsy antagonism, at the start between Dido and Davinier.

                              Amma Asante, unlike Spielberg’s ‘Amistad’ (1997), never shows a ghastly flashback to what actually happened in the slave ship, but the director creates the terrifying, sickening effect in a subtler and more powerful way. Some might feel that the movie is very mild in matters of slavery, but such regular depictions would have only given us one-dimensional characters that can be easily judged. The movie obviously has its share of weaknesses. Nonetheless, these flaws overcome to an extent by the gifted actors. The luminous Mbatha-Raw gives a delightful performance as Dido and Tom Wilkinson elegantly walks through the various shades of his character. Penelope Wilton and Emily Watson have less to do, but they inhabit their characters with telling nuance.  

                           “Belle” (103 minutes) is a touchingly old-fashioned drama that gracefully studies about love, slavery and justice. It uncannily amalgamates Jane Austen’s themes (secret longings, courting rites) into a horrific chapter in history. 


Babette's Feast -- A Subtle and Heart-Warming Banquet

                                        Gabriel Axel’s Danish drama “Babette’s Feast” (1987), which won the ‘Best Foreign Film Academy Award’, was adapted from the short story by Isak Dinesen. It is a food-centric movie that paints the unbreakable, but pliable, human spirit in broader strokes. It is easy to take a cynical approach with this film and write it off as a ‘feel-good dally’, but I felt that this is one of the rare movies that treats human flaws, like narrow-mindedness with munificence. It exhibits people’s good will without belittling their sentiments and beliefs. ‘Babette’s Feast’ is also a lovely film to look at. Its beautiful compositions and sublime images compel us to ponder over the themes of friendship, hope and gratitude.

                                        The film’s first-act tells the story of two sisters – Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Filippa (Bodil Kjer) – who have lived all their lives in a remote Danish fishing village. The story is set in the 19th century, and a series of flashbacks reveals the details of the past. At the young age, the beautiful and gorgeous sisters Martine and Filippa lived with their, extremely devout father (Pouel Kern), a Protestant minister. He keeps his daughters so close to him and runs off two potential suitors. Lorens Lowenheim (Gudmar Wivesson), a fine-looking cavalry officer, sees Martina and enamored by her beauty he often attends the minister’s prayer to be close with her. But, soon Lorens realizes that he will never be accepted and leaves the village. A year later jovial French opera star Achile Papin (Jean-Philippe Lafont) comes to the village to find some solitude. After hearing Filippa’s soulful voice, he offers her singing lessons. But, she gets frightened by his unbridled attention and passion. Soon, she decides not to continue the lessons.

                                      Years pass on, the sisters remain unmarried and their father is long dead. They lead a simple life, leading prayer meetings with their small sect and tending to the needs of poor. One day, a woman named Babette (Stephane Audran) arrives on the aging sister s doorstep with a letter from Papin. The letter says that Babette has fled from Paris, where her son and husband have been killed in the French uprising. The sisters take her in and the gentle Babette works as a housekeeper for the next 14 years, until one day, a letter arrives, informing Babette that she has won 10,000 francs in a lottery. Babette might soon leave the sisters, so she requests to cook an exquisite French dinner for them and their religious sect, in honor of the revered minister’s 100th birthday.

                                     Veteran Danish film-maker Gabriel Axel takes a very subtle and observant approach in ‘Babette’s Feast’. He showcases that the villagers’ moral uprightness have resulted in small-minded fights as they bicker each other, but he never parodies the town folks. He doesn’t use their religious piety to tag them as ignorant and mean-spirited people. In a way, we feel for these parochial elderly people, who in their pursuit of spiritual knowledge haven’t lived the life to fullest. On the other hand, we see two young men from the rational world. They also have a feeling of emptiness, since they couldn’t embrace the spiritual elements. But, Babette is rich in every manner, although she has lost people whom she treasured “Artists are never poor” says Babette). She is portrayed as a Christ-like figure and her feast (a Last Supper-like dinner where there are 12 at the table) slowly erases away the disgruntled feeling of towns folk and others. They renounce the human shortsightedness and pettiness over the course of the feast.

                                    The film’s third-act (the feast) could be enjoyed to the fullest, even if you ignore the Christian symbols. The feast scenes might put a gentle smile on your face. Earlier, when Babette brings in bottles of wine and large turtle, Filippa has a nightmare and proclaims to her religious sect that the dinner is a ‘witches sabbath’. She asks them not to react to their sensory pleasures at the dinner table. However, over the course of feast we gradually see the stern-faces of these folks reacting to the culinary tastes. They eventually realize that a fine food and wine doesn’t endanger one’s spirituality (“Righteousness and bliss have kissed each other” says the dinner’s special guest General Lowenheim). Once again in these scenes, the film-maker only makes us laugh at these good people’s silliness and fear, not at themselves.

                                   Bodil Kjer and Birgitte Federspiel as the aging sisters subtly bring out all the melancholy, pain of loss and love they have experienced in their lives. However, Stephane Audran dominates the film with her restrained performance. As Babette, she exudes gentleness as well as authority that undercut all the rigidity. Cinematographer Henning Kristiansen gray visuals of humid Danish coast seems like a nod to Ingmar Bergman. The camera work in the titular dinner scenes travels closely to etch out the joy in the characters’ face. Some of the sweeping rural vistas are framed like a renaissance-era paintings.

                                   Although the movie’s feel-good nature have earned the name, ‘award-bait movie’, “Babette’s Feast” (104 minutes) is a truly nourishing cinematic experience. It is a timeless parable that depicts how food is important to enrich our soul.  


Locke -- An Engrossing One-Man Drama

                                    ‘A man alone in his car for 90 minutes, connecting with voices of mates and family through a mobile phone’ may sound like a plot of an experimental movie or a ‘heist gone wrong’ thriller, where our protagonist is being chased by lawmen. In Steven Knight’s “Locke” (2013), British actor Tom Hardy drives and talks for more than hour-and-half, but it neither too experimental to comprehend nor a cheap-jack car-chase thriller. The events in the movie are never taken far beyond out protagonist’s windshield, but there is enough dramatic tension to keep us engaged. ‘Locke’ is an elegantly narrated film about accepting the consequences of our mistakes and the changes that is associated with them.

                                    Like the famous English political philosopher John Locke, Ivan Locke – our hero – is also a rationalist. He wants to face his life-changing mistake. He wants to do right by all his co-workers and family members, and also to hold chaos at bay. When we first see the thick-bearded Locke, he seems to leaving his work (late evening) at a construction site and gets inside his BMW car. He is about a take a 90 minute trip to Croydon from Birmingham. On the journey, he makes a series of calls on his in-car telephone and gradually we learn that this guy is under fire several fronts. Locke, the construction worker, has left the building site, where he has to supervise a major high-pressure concrete pour in Europe (for a sky-scarper).

                                   He receives a phone call from Bethan, telling him that she has gone into labor. Bethan is the reason for this journey. He then calls his boss, listed among his phone contacts as ‘Bastard’ to tell that he might not be available for the concrete pour. Later he calls his home to tell that he won’t be home to watch the soccer match. He also tells his gleeful sons, Eddie and Sean to call when their mother, Katrina comes back from shopping. Meanwhile, Locke’s boss goes berserk after knowing that he is not at the site. Locke calls and assists the miffed, alcoholic crew chief Donal to check the specific grade of concrete and to see that all roadblocks are arranged. When wife Katrina calls, Locke confesses about his infidelity with 40 year old assistant, Bethan and that he is going to attend that woman, who is giving birth to his child.

                                  Steven Kinight’s screenplay is meticulous and is allowed to unfold at its own pace. Knight’s central character is a familiar guy – a competent workaholic who uses the same practical tones between a panicked boss and jubilant sons. So, infusing life-changing dilemmas into such an ‘everyman’ character easily resonates with us. Although the basic story might seem dull or gimmicky, Knight forces us to put ourselves in Locke’s position, where every choice only leads to damnation. The drama is also more internalized and mostly veers away from using noisy, annoying exchanges. Locke often spews resentful words about his father who had abandoned him as a boy. This adds a perspective on why Locke wants to do right thing at a great personal cost. 

Steven Knight and Tom Hardy

                                Steven Knight’s first directorial attempt, “Hummingbird” (with Jason Statham) had an interesting idea, but it was a below-average film, lacking subtlety and slipped into the confines of a typical Statham fare. He has improved a lot in style, in ‘Locke’, as the proceedings are infused with the tension of a bank heist. Knight has shot the picture for five consecutive nights, with Hardy inside a car that was carried away by a truck on the highway. The voice cast called Hardy from a hotel (the calls are all genuine). This method of shooting and spliced final cut has perfectly brought out the compressed nature of the story.

                                Tom Hardy has previously used his husky figure to play dangerous, violent man (“Bronson”, “Warrior”, “Dark Knight Rises”), but here he is cast against expectations, in an everyman role who rarely raises his voice. Hardy’s melodic, lyrical voice and angry monologues radiates the character’s inner pain. He gracefully conveys the fear, confusion, and resignation through the phone conversations. Look out for Hardy’s stunning expression, when his kid excitedly jabbers about how they are going to sit and watch the recorded football match, when he comes back to home. Tom Hardy might attain stardom after the release of next year’s ‘Mad Max’ reboot, but this is the kind of role that showcases the extent of his talents.

                             “Locke” (85 minutes) is a brilliantly executed film that depicts how one mistake could determine the path of our life’s journey. It is about a man seeking rehabilitation through patient will and reason.