In America [2002] – A Soul-Penetrating Tale of Grieving Angels

                                                  Movies that end with a grieving loss of a family member would finish on a hopeful note expressing that at least the other members of family have come together, and so eventually the grief might wash away. But, we know that grief isn’t a sand castle, stacked on the shore, waiting to be deluged by a huge wave. It is much more complex than that. It could pass on like an infection, maiming & turning us into the living dead. But, at the same time if you manage to rise out of grief, it will transform you into a new, humble person. Irish film-maker Jim Sheridan's “In America” (2002) deals with the grief of a family, who had just lost their youngest family member and is unable to express or talk about the intense sorrow, spreading throughout their heart. How do they start anew among this hovering soul-sickness form the core of this emotionally resonant tear-jerker.

                                                “In America” begins at a point, where most movies dealing with grief ends. The Irish family of four: father Johnny (Paddy Considine), mother Sarah (Samantha Morton), two daughters Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger) arrive into New York on tourist visa to have a fresh start. Our narrator is the matured, contemplative 10 year old girl Christy, who believes her recently deceased little brother Frankie’s words that ‘she can make just three magical wishes in life’. Christy, the reserved one, has a camcorder and records the lives around her, while Ariel is a boisterous 7 year old, who believes in the magic world to view everyone as friends. When crossing the border from Canada, the family’s bedraggled car is stopped by the immigrant officers. While going through the papers, they ask about the 5th family member. Suddenly, grief pervades the atmosphere as the subject of Frankie comes up. Right at that time, Christy makes her first magical wish to pass through the border without facing any tribulations from the officials. The wish fulfillment happens and the family traverses through the green-hued tunnel to emerge into the bustling neon-lit streets of New York City.

                                            The children stick their head out of the car, basking in the aura of artificial lights. Of course, a beaten-down adult may see this setting as hokey, but this scene plays out from the perspective of children, and so it retains the magical feeling. The family’s grief and downbeat prospects seems to be washed off in that ‘cruising-through-the-streets’ moment, but as I said the averted grief always waits in the dark, getting ready to pounce on us at the right time. Despite witnessing the glamorous side of Manhattan, the reality takes Johnny and his family to a run-down apartment in New York’s famous ‘Hell’s Kitchen’. They have junkies and other societal outcasts as neighbors. Johnny, a stage actor, goes to various auditions. Sarah aims to be a teacher, but only gets the waitress job at an ice-cream parlor named ‘Heaven’. Along with repressed grief, poverty and searing summer heat troubles the family. But, thanks to the enlightening joyous faces & keen eyes of the children, Sarah and Johnny do their best to find their footing. The little girls also make friends with a towering, afflicted artist Mateo (Djimon Hounsou). Gradually, with the help of these gentle souls, the parents learn to say goodbye to the smothering grief and find happiness in the present. 

                                                 “In America” is definitely sentimental. Yes, it elicits emotions out of us, but it didn’t feel manipulative. Barring few hokey moments, the tears we shed for the characters and their predicament are well-earned. The sentimental allusions also don’t stop writer/director Jim Sheridan to profoundly explore the lacerating impact of repressed grief. Sheridan was accused of tidying up the realities of Hell’s Kitchen, and for construing a script that’s impractical. “In America” is a timeless fable about coming to terms with loss and grief. Since, director Sheridan opts to unfurl the story from the children’ perspective, he chooses a poetic-realist tone rather than showcasing the stark realism. The children running around the apartment building, riddled with junkers & hustlers, without facing any sense of danger could be taken as a testament to this poetic-realist tone, rather than a fatal flaw in the script. The reference to the E.T. character, the snowball fights, and the ailment of Mateo does turn to be the narrative’s little sappy moments, but Sheridan at each turn, keeps on revealing great depths about the characters that we can overlook those inherent flaws.

                                                   The story was semi-autobiographical, based on Sheridan and his family’s own experiences in the 1980’s US, when he worked as a stage director, before moving back to Ireland to make his critically acclaimed debut feature “My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown” (1989). Sheridan is said to have written the first draft of “In America” and sent it to his two daughters for advice. They brought in the perspective of their 80’s childhood. It lead to create distinct, polyphonic view points for the characters and the daughter Naomi & Kristen Sheridan ended up sharing the writing credits alongside father Jim. If on the paper, the plot seems to threaten to go overboard with maudlin tones, director Sheridan does his best to keep the humane, oft-kilter tone. The heartwarming and heartbreaking confrontations between the characters are the significant parts of the narrative, which is well-written and more importantly, it was flawlessly staged. In one such sequence, Johnny has an argument with Sarah about her trying to forget their dead son Frankie and his inability to feel for his living kids. To which Sarah asks “If you can’t touch somebody you created, how can you create somebody that’ll touch anybody”. Those unadulterated words perfectly relate Johnny’s grief with his inability to be the good actor. Later, Johnny puts on an actors’ face and confronts the dying neighbor Mateo. Once again, the ensuing conversation reveals a face of the character, which we aren’t able to perceive previously. The script moves between loosely built episodes, but those things are gorgeously performed and staged to lose our interest.

                                                      Jim Sheridan recurrently zeroes-in on the contradictory decisions, the characters make, when they are at end of their tether. Johnny’s decision to risk everything for a $30 ET doll to gain respect among his kids and Sarah’s hazardous decision to have the baby for protecting the children are the examples of those conflicting positions. It might seem ridiculous in some other film, but here it wonderfully gels with the narrative’s whimsicality. The observations by the children are alternately funny and sad. The scene where Ariel tells about her loneliness to the parents is so heartbreaking and very relatable. One of the movie’s well-directed sequences occurs when Johnny and Sarah conceive another child, while below their apartment the secluded Mateo slices his hand and dribbles blood onto the canvas. The entire scene is capped with thunderstorm, and the cross-cuts between lovemaking and Mateo’s rage indicates how one man’s maddening desire to life is somehow connected to conceiving and survival of a newly born child (the cross-cuts occurs at a later stage too).  

                                                The performances are uniformly excellent. If the Bolger sisters (playing Christy & Ariel) are miracle of the movie, Samantha Morton & Considine serve as emotional anchor. Sarah & Emma give one of the best child performances on-screen. Their simple observations are radiant enough. They depict the soulfulness of kids without ever putting in front the cuteness factor. Paddy Considine infuses the everyman quality to his character and his gamut of emotions in the final scene would be strongly felt by all, who fought hard to overcome a loss. Morton’s expressive eyes and lyrical smiles don’t demand for dialogues to showcase the characters’ inner conflicts. She is one of the rare actors, who could sell every scene she acts and in this film, even her fragility has elegance. Djimon Hounsou strikes the right notes as Mateo, a character which could easily be turned into a stereotype (the disappointing career trajectory of Hounsou, despite starring in movies like “Amistad”, “Gladiator” and “Blood Diamond” also tells a lot about Hollywood’s casting choices). 


                                               "In America” (105 minutes) is an uplifting film about a beaten down family’s struggle to overcome obstacles like grief & cynicism. It puts a touchingly human face to the wise words of ‘how one should not dwell on the past but look towards the future’. The odd crowd-pleasing sentimentality may irk those expecting subtlety, but the performances kept on pulling my heartstrings till the end. 

The Land of Hope [2012] – A Much-Needed Message within a Prolonged Family Drama

                                           “Sumida, don’t give up!” cries out the girl to frustrated, angry young protagonist in the mad genius, punk auteur Sion Sono’s “Himizu” (2011). The film was planned to be live-action adaptation of a famous manga series, but Sono at the last minute, after witnessing the disasters of March 2011, turned it into cry from his heart to Japanese youth. Regardless of its missteps and narrative flaws, “Himizu” managed to underline the need for hope despite everything going wrong. The anger and outcry Sono showed in that movie persisted in his next independent feature “The Land of Hope” (2012), which was entirely dedicated to a Fukushima-like disaster and the consequences faced by common people. While, “Himizu” blamed the self-interest of older generations’ wrecking as one of reasons for the environmental ruin, “The Land of Hope” benevolently showcases younger and older generations’ feelings of fear, desperation, tenaciousness and hope, in the face of a disastrous rupture.

                                            Among Sono’s prolific, dark and challenging body of works, “The Land of Hope” seems to offer the most  winsome experience. But, at the same time it is far from being the insanely busy director’s best work. At 134 minutes, it remains too long, overly sentimental at times and the direction is very unsurprising (full of fixed flat shots and emotionally inconsequential long takes). Nevertheless, two elements lend this slow-paced drama the watchable factor: the way it brought to light the most pertinent subject in modern Japan; and the fantastic performances of Naoko Ohtani & Megumi Kagurazaka, both envision the loss, misery and fear of different generation women.

                                          In “The Land of Hope”, Sono flawlessly induces a realistic vibe to the proceedings by choosing to film in the deserted Fukushima. But, Sono gives us a fictional location for the narrative: Nagashima prefecture. And he treats Fukushima Daichii disaster as something that happened in the recent past. The central focus is on the Ono family. The father Yasuhiko Ono (Isao Natsuyagi) runs diary and produce farms on the outskirts of a small town, situated in the fictional Nagashima. He is helped by his son Yoichi (Jun Murakami) and daughter-in-law Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka). The matriarch of the family Cheiko (Naoko Ohtani) suffers from dementia, who often tends to her flower beds and thinks of being in her early 20’s. A subplot involves Ono’s neighbors, the Suzuki family, whose members are: father Ken, mother Meiko, son Mitsuru and his girlfriend Yoko.

                                           One day, a powerful earthquake disrupts the reactor at nearby nuclear power plant. Media shows different, contracting reports about the earthquake, tsunami and power plant disruption. Eventually, the government officials show up forcing the population with 20 km radius (of the plant) to evacuate. Ono’s farm and house just falls outside the government announced quarantine zone, while the Suzuki family and the rest of community is crammed into a bus to be taken into some medical center. Yasuhiko Ono questions the government officials, cloaked in protective suits that how they know the radiation will exactly stop spreading within 20 km radius. He questions whether they should also evacuate. The officials’ asks him to be ‘patient’ and just stay inside for now. Later, Yoichi considering the illness of Cheiko decides to stay in the farm, but forces his son and daughter-in-law to move to a place, with no danger of radiation. The younger couple Yoichi and Izumi moves to nearby safe town, where she gets pregnant. But, the pregnancy only brings waves of paranoia. Meanwhile, the young son in Suzuki family takes his girlfriend and goes in search for her parents in the tsunami inflicted regions.

                                          Director Sono develops the narrative to serve as a slap to the face of bureaucratic incompetence and also as a tribute to the people, who endured all the hardships & faced the consequences. The ultimately pointless action of the government after the tragedy plus the happy-go-lucky, falsely optimistic attitude of media programs is well emphasized. Sono leaves out his trademark rage to take a more grounded approach in presenting the people’s trauma. In this classical approach, Sono insists on themes of nostalgia unlike his previous works. The narrative themes also include politics, economic & cultural transformation and crisis management, but the direction clearly lacks inspiration at many occasion to deal these themes in a profound manner. Sono does realize some powerful sequences in portraying the characters’ dread, and there are also well-earned tear-jerking moments towards the end, especially when Yasuhiko and Cheiko dance in the snow-drenched, post-tsunami landscape. He finds a poetic sense of beauty in the real, devastated areas and places gradually recovering.    

                                         Izumi’s character transformation to radio-phobic woman happens so suddenly, diffused with the ingredients of a soap opera. Her paranoia that results in Yoichi’s emotional suffering is excessively drawn out at times, losing the gathered impact. In one scene, Yoichi’s workmates blame his wife for doubting about radiation in their town. Yoichi angrily screams to them “A month ago you refused to boil rice with tap water. Have you forgotten?” This impactful scene is overly drawn out in the later episodes, when Yoichi confronts people giggling & murmuring about his wife’s paranoia. In few other occasions, Sono does flawlessly etch out the narrative’s bittersweet nature. The scenes depicting the relationship between older Ono couples are effortlessly affecting, and at times remind us of the animated apocalypse fable “When the Wind Blows” (1986). Although Mitsuru & Yoko subplot adds to the narrative flabbiness, it withholds one excellent, surrealistic Sono moment. When the young lovers glimpse into the desolated town, they come across two ghostly kids, remembering the old days of listening to ‘Beatles’ and asks the couple to go forward ‘one step at a time’.  This eerie scene feels like a fine touch to the ghost town and also strongly suggests the central theme of film – hope. The performances from veteran as well as younger actors are mature and sensitive. And, despite lacking in pace and tension, Sono never designs the circumstances to be exploitative or preachy. 


                                           Sion Sono’s “The Land of Hope” (134 minutes) is a family drama that documents the ravaged landscape and tragedy of nuclear fallout. However, its robust themes plus the nightmarish views aren’t fully realized due to the uninventive, flat execution. 

Scarecrow [1973] – An Elegy of Downtrodden Drifters

                                              Jerry Schatzberg’s fascinating, low-key character study “Scarecrow” (1973) didn’t only went off the radar when it first released, but was also written off as ‘just another buddy movie’. The great performance of Al Pacino and Gene Hackman was mostly dwarfed by their other great performances in “The Godfather”, “Serpico”, “The French Connection” & “The Conversation”. Despite winning a Palme d’Or at Cannes, it received lukewarm response at the time of release. “Scarecrow” is a humanist story about the inconsolable losses, faced by two downtrodden people. Their cyclical losses become a lament for the blistering side of American dream. Yes, the script (written by Michael White) isn’t very organic, doesn’t quite work at times, and its metaphors are so often reiterated. But, still I think “Scarecrow” is an underrated cinematic gem for two reasons: the profound emotional depth of the central characters, achieved by two great actors of all time; and for the rich vistas of wastelands, crafted by Schatzberg and DP Vilmos Zsigmond (cinematographer of classics like “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”, “Close Encounters of Third Kind” and “Deer Hunter”).

                                          The film opens marvelously with Max (Gene Hackman) walking in the sprawling landscape like a angry bear and laughably crosses the fence, alongside the road. Max’s clumsy behavior is observed behind the tree by Francis (Al Pacino), another drifter waiting for a vehicle to pass-by. Max only glares at Francis when he introduces himself and they wait on either side of windy rural road, where more tumbleweeds pass-by than cars. While they wait, Francis does clownish acts to appease the burly Max. When Max vainly tries to light his cigarette, Francis offers his last match and a kind of camaraderie is established. The sequence wound up with a picturesque long shot of field with the two silently gazing at the sun going down. Later, they travel together, rest at a squalid bar, where we learn the tidbits about their past and Max’s quest for future.

                                           The temperamental with his steel-rimmed spectacles, layers of clothes, and flat cap is fresh out of prison from an assault case. He wants to meet his sister Coley (Dorothy Tristan) in Denver, then go to Pittsburgh to collect all his bank savings, and start his well-planned car-wash business. Francis had been in the navy for five years, after abandoning his pregnant ex-wife Annie (Penelope Allen), at Detroit. He doesn’t know whether he has a boy or a girl, and so he carries a gift box for his kid, with a brightly-colored lamp inside it. Max takes a shine to Francis and asks him to be his working partner. Francis Lionel Delbucci gets the nickname ‘Lion’ as Max doesn’t like Francis as the name of a partner. Francis with his ‘scarecrow theory’ and innocent friendliness is the exact opposite of Max, who quite often behaves like a cantankerous mutt. Of course, the freewheeling journey and outcast stature makes them develop a strong bond of friendship or brotherhood. And for the most part, their trip avoids generic trappings of bromance/road movies. The plot rather palpably deals with how their life-force is attacked and dreams threatened.

 Spoilers Ahead……..

                                           The script by Garry Michael White is definitely stagnates at times, but one most commendable aspect in writing is the infusion of a dark, melancholic tone beneath the humor. On the outset, when we grasp the characteristics of Max and Francis, we expect the funny, happy-go-lucky guy to instill hope in the life of the temperamental guy. It is the typical narrative arc used in buddy genre movies, but here the script transcends it. The change doesn’t happen in one end (on Max’s). It happens on both ends. For Max and Francis their respective anger and buffoonery is the way of circumventing the humiliation & shame, society throws at them. It’s like an inherent defense mechanism, which leads to their fall down as well. Max’s temper often gets him into trouble, but Francis’ clownish acts don’t save him from trouble too (in the end, only Max’s wrath helps Francis in the correctional facility).

                                        Director & photographer Jerry Schatzberg, within his little body of work, have directed some fascinating works. Before “Scarecrow”, he directed the piercing drug addiction drama “The Panic in the Needle Park” (1971), which was Al Pacino’s second film appearance. While the ‘Needle Park’ confined to a little locale and focused themes, “Scarecrow” had a broader scope, in terms of geography as well as showcasing the emotions. Schtazberg had the flawless understanding of the acting talents in front of him (Bill Cosby and Jack Lemmon were previously talked for the roles). He just lets them take the command of the scenes, designing the perfect stagings (of course DP Zsigmond makes even the wastelands very beautiful). One of my favorite staging in the film happens at a later bar scene, where Max ludicrously does a striptease. It could easily be displayed as funny scene, but Schtazberg’ frames searches for pathos, in Max’s antic. In the scene, there is focus on Francis, who kind of sees how ridiculous his clownish philosophy of ‘scarecrow’ looks off, when seen from the other side. Francis does teach Max the need to be light-hearted (the final shoe-thumping of Max shows us that), but in that striptease scene Francis sees a reflection of himself, which doesn’t look great. The profound emotions in that particular scene would have simmered to the top, if not for the little directorial nudge and astounding performances.

                                       The other well-staged sequence is the heartbreaking one, when Francis holds a child and walks to the fountain. Before that, Francis is sadistically cheated by his ex-wife Annie, when he calls her from the phone booth. When he comes out of the phone booth, his forlorn expression changes into a laugh, just like the way he thought ‘crows are not screaming but laughing at the scarecrow’. In that fountain scene, the locked scream inside Francis win over and kills his laughs, making him to take some child to give the baptizing his alleged dead child never received. Again, Schatzberg focuses on the beautiful angel statues, surrounding the fountain, and the gushing water, to make us understand Francis’ inner turmoil and the reason for his actions. The film was mostly said to be shot in sequences, which induces palpable sense to Max & Francis friendship. Before production, Hackman and Pacino were said to have journeyed around California, like the central characters, which impeccable works in favor of their screen dynamics. Both the actors make us swing with the emotions of primary characters, also allowing us to contemplate their existential alienation. Hackman and Pacino bring small, natural details to their characters that are more engrossing in a second-time watch.


                                          “Scarecrow” (108 minutes) is a profoundly emotional story of societal alienation, championed by two great actors Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. Whether the damn crows are laughing or screaming, in the end, we would want these two estranged souls to succeed in life. 

Scarecrow -- IMDb 

Virgin Mountain [2015] – A Charmingly Offbeat Look at Solitude

                                                  American journalist & author Hunter S. Thompson said “We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and we shall someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way. I do not say lonely – at least, not all the time – but essentially, and finally alone. This is what makes your self-respect so important………” I think those are the most truthful words and one which I often relate to. Although, on the outset, Thompson’s phrase may seem grim, it is actually realistic and offers abundance of hope. The words don’t ask you to shed compassion or treat people badly, since we are always going to be ‘alone’. But it rather elucidates the futile, desperate attempts of looking for our own happiness in others’ heart and mind. When you understand this you can stand tall and deliver a punch to the hardships that life is gonna throw at you. You can retain some sort of hope even when our empathy & compassion is treated with condescension. The core theme of director Dagur Kari’s Icelandic feature-film “Fusi” aka “Virgin Mountain” (2015) emanates the meaning of that aforementioned quote. It is a delicate, bittersweet character study of a lonely man in an alienated society. It is about a 43 year old, single man’s deeper kindness, in the face of life’s quiet emptiness.

                                               Director Kari, who gained prominence with his melancholic coming-of-age story “Noi the Albino” (2003) went on to make the critically panned indie film “The Good Heart”, starring Brian Cox and Paul Dano. With “Virgin Mountain” he once again returns to deadpan & endearing tone of his Nordic homeland. Produced by Iceland’s well-known cinematic exports, director Baltasar Kormakur, this charmingly offbeat movie pretty much has the story line of a Hollywood Rom-com, although it doesn’t fall into the cloyingly sentimental pitfalls of Hollywood films. The main reason for that is the mountain of a man Gunnar Jonsson, who plays the central character Fusi – an overweight, 43 year old terribly shy virgin. These are character points which could be easily used for the premise of crass adult comedy, but Kari perfectly chooses an empathetic eye to look at this socially awkward misfit. Fusi is actually a man-child, who likes to eat chocolate cereals, plays with remote cars, obsessed with war games (especially in recreating a miniature model of the battle of El Alamein), and he still lives with his mother. He is also not capable of harboring any malicious thoughts.

                                              Fusi works at the airport in the baggage handling department, where he is constantly bullied by his younger co-workers. With years of harassment, Fusi might have learned to endure those cruel jokes. He befriends a lonely 8 or 9 year old girl living in his apartment complex, whose freshly divorced father is always late from work. Fusi’s loves spending time with his friend (Sigurjon Kjartansson), who shares Fusi’s fascination for armada of battle figurines. He also finds solace by having dinner every Friday night at a Thai restaurant and in calling the local radio show, requesting for heavy metal songs. The drab routine is changed one day, when the boyfriend of Fusi’s mother offers coupon for line-dancing classes -- a birthday gift for Fusi. The timid man-child decides to skip the classes and sits inside his truck, park outside the dance class building. In doing so, he meets a fellow lost soul Sjofn (Ilmur Kristjansfdottir). But, Sjofn isn’t a ‘manic pixie dream girl’ character type, blatantly offering the promise of romance and sex. Beneath her bubbly attitude lays heavy emotional burdens.

                                               Sex and losing virginity aren’t the things that preoccupy Kari’s plot trajectory. He rather centers his plot on Fusi’s lack of connection and abundance of compassion. Fusi’s loneliness is elegantly portrayed in the opening set of visuals. Director Kari opens with medium close-up shot of Fusi, driving the bubble-like baggage-handling van, representing his emotionally contained state. Then he goes for a bird’s eye shot of runway, where the baggage handling truck moves alone with no moving object in the vicinity. Its cut to the shot of Fusi eating his chocolate cereals with milk, at home, and then once again cuts to bird’s eye shot of Fusi placing the luggage on the carousel. The final shot of opening sequence shows Fusi calmly sitting at home, placing the miniature tanks to design his favorite battlefield. Without uttering a word or a forlorn expression, Kari gracefully sets up the character’s alienation and the achromatic narrative tone in these initial sequences. In another sequence, we see Fusi inside his truck that’s going through car washing machine. He is sad since he is dismissed by Sjofn. The little water droplets from the car wash equipment permeates throughout the truck’s window panes, representing the pervasive misery in his heart.  Such refined sense of visual storytelling by Kari makes the film’s generic story to standout from its American counterparts. Director Kari makes his actors to suggest their inherent emotions rather than declare it. His unobtrusive camera angles and deft direction allows the narrative to flow freely and naturally.

                                              “Virgin Mountain” isn’t without cliches, but I’d like to call them as ‘endurable cliches’. The presence of eight year old girl, controlling mother, pursuit of dance classes and Sjofn’s friendship could have been easily overplayed to extract enough sentimentality for Fusi or showcase insincere feelings of hope. Although the presence of these characters & narrative tropes are in itself a cliché, their destined path is heartrending. It may not be really surprising to see what happens to the alleged relationship between Fusi and Sjofn, but despite that predictability factor, Kari shows enough restraint in staging the scenes. At times, it feels like the script is treating heavyweight subjects like depression and alienation in a lightweight manner (the final gesture of Fusi does have the Hollywood artifice), but as I mentioned the nuanced visuals and subtle performances transcends those narrative pitfalls. The unconventional ending (staying true to Hunter Thompson’s words) retains more hope than the usual upbeat, cinematic one (with sex & romance).  TV comedian Gunar Jonasson, through his weary voice & soulful gaze, touchingly conveys Fusi’s inner torment and resilience.  He finely exhibits the gamut of emotions that takes him to the belated adolescence phase. 



                                               “Fusi” aka “Virgin Mountain” (94 minutes) is a heartwarming, instantly lovable, and slightly unconventional portrait of a social misfit. Despite too much of gentleness, it remains as refreshing take on a timeworn tale. 

The Pope’s Toilet [2007] – A Heartfelt Parable on the Dreams of Little Men

                                                 In the opening shot of Directors Cesar Charlone and Enrique Fernandez’s Uruguayan movie “The Pope’s Toilet” (‘El bano del Papa’, 2007), we see the shadow of cyclists riding through a dirt terrain. The camera gradually moves upward to show the men pedaling speedily, only to see a man with a motorbike passing them efficiently. Of course, these cyclists aren’t pedaling for passion to achieve some renowned title. It is just need or a will to survive that’s driving them. Once the motorbike passes our protagonist Beto (Caesar Troncoso), there’s a feeling of stillness, although his cycle is traveling at some speed. He drinks some water and keeps pushing for the destination. Alas, a corrupt mobile border patrol guy named Meleyo catches the cyclists and ceases few of the contraband stuff they are carrying in their cycle, before terrorizing them as well. These men live in a small Uruguay town of Melo, situated near the border of Brazil. They make a living by smuggling packaged foods, whisky, household goods, etc from the nearby town Acegua (which is nearly 60 km from Melo). By smuggling, these people are not trying to make some quick bucks. It is the only way to scrap a living in the impoverished place, where the local economy is in a run-down state.

                                                 The film is set in 1988 and Melo’s inhabitants are blessed with good news. The traveling Pope, John Paul-II will arrive and give a speech at Melo as part of his South American itinerary. The Uruguayan President and many other esteemed authorities are also expected to arrive. But, for the townspeople the most joyous of the media proclamation is the prediction that at least 20,000 Brazilians will be crossing the border to hear Pope’s speech (with subsequent media coverage the predicted no. of people to visit Melo increases). The poor but enterprising men & women of Melo borrow money from bank and some sell their lands to install food & drink stands for providing refreshments to the visiting Brazilians. The people of Melo are all religious and few don’t want to make money of Pope’s visit, but this is an opportunity of a lifetime. In media interviews, few voices state that the event will be a commercial flop, although the general euphoria doesn’t give them such thoughts of failure.

                                                 While Beto’s neighbors are busy thinking about food stands, Beto has a different idea. After long speech and so much food, the faithful visitors will need to relieve themselves. So, he decides to build a public toilet. This is a town where there are not many private privies and so the idea of a public toilet may cater to everyone, once the feeding frenzy ends. But, building a public lavatory isn’t an easy task for Beto, who earns in scraps. He asks his resilient wife Carmen (Virginia Mendez) for the money she has saved over the years. She vehemently denies, since that money is for their smart, teenage daughter Silvia (Virginia Ruiz). Silvia boasts the dream of becoming a journalist after pursuing courses in the big city MonteVideo. Within her room at night, Silvia playacts as a journalist. She goes around the town, observing the journalists covering the Pope’s visit with a look of idolatry. Beto runs into trouble in one of his smuggling journey and in order to realize the dream of building the toilet, he makes a deal with the ‘devil’.

                                                 The foremost strength of “The Pope’s Visit” is that it doesn’t give into the temptation of being uplifting by embracing the sentimentality or idealism of poverty. Writer/directors Cesar Charlone and Enrique Fernandez make us root for Beto’s success, but not so in a way that the underlying social aspects are used as mere plot element. In fact, the townspeople’s socioeconomic predicament and their indelible religious concern are given as much attention as Beto’s quest. The camarderie and the hopeful nature of the little characters of the town are realized in the most authetic and realistic manner. So, we get the sense of a community; not the sense of watching certain caricatures blindly celebrating poverty. Beto’s unlikable characteristics are well realized and Silvia’s dreams are given equal importance. By the inclusion of such element, the writer/director duos aren’t nudging us at every turn saying ‘this is how you should feel about my character and their predicament’.  This lack of one-sided moral stance is what profoundly reveals the injustice done to these poor people.  

                                                  The film is slightly flawed by its conventional as well as muddled depiction of corruption among the border patrol and customs officials. At those sequences, Beto and his people’s downgraded position are revealed through simple dialogues. But, with the impending arrival of pope and through the presence of mass media, directors Charlone and Fernandez, impeccably uses powerful visuals to showcase injustice acts of the system. Those visuals would enrage and kindle the thoughts of every socially or politically conscious human. Why do we idolate pompous people and their abstract authority that relishes in playing with people’s simple dreams? The film doesn’t pass any judgment on Church or mock the religiously faithful people, but it is generally critically of all the idols of the system, whose messages of hope and peace gives nothing to the people, who desperately want them. In the background and in TV relay, we hear Pope talking about dignity, hard work (“Work must not be performed simply to earn a living….." says the Pope), emphasizes on women’s resilience and the need for spiritual salvation. Thousands of pilgrims hear it, but once the speech finishes, they go on about their way, not hearing the voices of poor workers (with food stalls and so on) hoping to make a living. What effect did the great Pope’s speech had on the visitors? Did those soulful speeches bring any meaning to those who hear? As the venerable Pope or esteemed politicians say ‘the spirit of the poor must be celebrated’. But don’t they deserve something that pertains to elevate their economic conditions.

                                                     The film-makers also take a dig at the despicably exaggerated coverage of the media, with no concrete information. The media gives no practical assistance to the impoverished and in fact ruins them. Two visuals in “The Pope’s Toilet” stayed with me, alternately enraging and extracting genuine tears: Beto running with the toilet fixture on his shoulder; and when Silvia views her father, through the TV, desperately asking people in the crowd “Need to use the toilet?” A tear flows from the daughter’s eyes. It may be a moment of epiphany for her and also for us. It’s true that I had never known how poverty feels like, but those images deliver a punch to the heart and guts of people like me. We might have seen hundreds and thousands of films about the poor, but it is those visuals that perfectly define the impoverished state, where every last effort fizzles out. The underlying social message behind Beto’s earnest attempts would alter once perspective of some street vendor or dignified laborers, positioned in the lower rungs of socioeconomic hierarchy.

                                                 Nevertheless, “The Pope’s Toilet” isn’t riddled with pathos or anger. Its film-makers surprisingly weave many genuine humorous moments. There’s a radical notion in the way the film’s ending is set up, but at the same time a sense of hope is divulged in the closing frames. This hope doesn’t arise from the promise of a better ‘system’, but simply from the robust bonds between once family and friends. Caser Charlone has worked as cinematographer for Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener”. Here, Charlone eschews his flamboyant visual style and steeps the frames with grainy realism. Most of the camera movements are hand-held and it is wonderfully attuned to the motions of cycling smugglers. There are few slow-motion shots, whose presence are justified and never waver into melodrama territory. Except for Caesar Troncoso playing Beto, the cast is full of non-professional actors. The manner with which the actors showcase despair along with moments of little enthusiasm is outstanding. Virginia Ruiz gives a much grounded performance as Silvia, a girl torn between her own ambition and allegiance to family.


                                                 “The Pope’s Toilet” (90 minutes) is a heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and oddly uplifting movie about the ‘blessed’ poor and their collapsed dreams. It instills authentic doubts on our society’s venerated institutions. 

The Witch [2015] – An Arthouse Horror on the Frailty of Goodness

                                                Robert Eggers’ feature-film debut, “The Witch: A New-England Folktale”, backed by Sundance Film Festival had one of the best trailers for horror film in recent times. It seemed to belong to Michael Haneke’s “White Ribbon” territory or Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf” or Grimm’s tales, to recall an older reference. I adjudged that Eggers would go for a seeping atmosphere of dread and paranoia rather than giving jump-from-the-seat easy scares. The 17th century the Puritan family, especially the presence of a young girl indicated that the vital theme would be old Christian hegemony, which considered female anatomy as the menace of devil. So, is the North American wilderness going to deal with themes of paranoia and myths associated with lands? And I knew that this film isn’t going to be a commercial slam-dunk or cater to those expecting a sophisticated horror. “The Witch” does stay true to these expectations, perceived from its trailer, and at the same there are few disappointments too. However, the shortcomings of the themes are over-ridden by genuinely unnerving colonial America environment. 

                                               Independent horror films of recent years like Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” (2014) and David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” (2015) portrayed an aesthetic that tried to connect terrors to human feelings of loneliness, sexual desire and alienation. Fans who distrusted horror genre movie not being soaked in blood and gore hated these films, while others expecting a ‘Conjuring’ like ghost-hunting scares proclaimed ‘nothing much happens here’. But, with little patience and more focus, we can feel the dreadful atmosphere oozing from a long shot, showcasing man walking towards the camera in “It Follows” than in the blood splatters of modern horror flicks. Of course, those aforementioned independent horror films weren’t the first ones to have transformative horror boundaries. From Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” to Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” (and how could we ever forget Friedkin’s “Exorcist”!) impeccably treated the psychological anguish of its characters as the primary horror element. It would be futile to compare Eggers’ work to masters like Robert Wise, Kubrick, Ken Russell, Polanski or Friedkin, but “The Witch’s” portrait of evil is open to interpretation and works at different levels, which is not just restricted to horror genre trappings. 

                                             The movie starts on one cold, grey day in the 17th century New England plantation (year, to be precise is 1630). The family of William (Ralph Ineson) is facing a trial for some violation of doctrine of their Puritan Church. “I cannot be judged false Christians, for I have done nothing but preach God’s gospel” proudly claims William to the council. Pride, one of the sins, that leads to the exilement of Puritan family into sinister wilderness. William’s family consists of caring as well as stern matriarch Katherine (Kate Dickie) and five children: teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), pubescent boy Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), little twins Mercy and Jonas, and the newborn Samuel. The family sets up their farm on the edge of dark, towering forest. One day, while caring for Samuel and playing peekaboo with him, Thomasin loses the child to a mysterious entity. Patriarch believes it to be a wolf, but the children think of a witch cloaked in red, living deep in the forest.

                                              Of course, considering the title of film, the children’s fancies come true, and what happens to Samuel makes up for one of the film’s creepy sequences. The loss of Samuel strains the relationship between Thomasin and mother Katherine. The corns are affected by a plague and William is desperate enough to hunt animals for food and furs that he has secretly pawned his wife’s coveted Silver chalice cup. The Puritans’ faith rests on ages-old, neatly divide conception of good and evil, which causes Katherine to think that they are cursed. William thinks God is testing. Thomasin perceives her sexuality as a disruptive force, often kneeling to seek respite from sinful thoughts.  As the atmosphere grows more forlorn, the restrictive religious notions places blames on Thomasin. 

                                             Despite the unsettling tone and brooding sense of mystery, “The Witch” never reaches the benchmark standards set by Haneke or Bergman, but it is unnecessary to expect that kind of profound thematic exploration from a first time director. The script deals with two significant moral trajectory: the hardships William faces and subjects his family; and Thomasin’s desire to outgrow from the stifling atmosphere. William’s uncontrollable sense of pride, misfortunes, comeuppance and eventually the fall weren’t as crafty or compelling as one would expect. Ineson, with his deep voice lends enough gravitas to William, but the characters’ fall from grace had neither the nuance nor the intrigue. Thomasin’s ostracized feelings were portrayed better and amply explore the teen’s increasing sense of defiance, using the strictly religious and openly supernatural lenses. The beliefs entrenched in her mind from birth considers Thomasin’s emerging femininity as a cause of divine punishment. The implosions of the family dynamics are indirectly caused by supernatural interference, but what’s fascinating is the way Thomasin’s suffering becomes a representative of the era’s beliefs (“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” asks Black Philip to Thomasin, a question that is truly tempting). The easier nature to blame everything on women or the manner with which community relates feminine power to darkest power possesses enough relevance not only to the Salem Witch-hunt era, but also the present. 

                                             So, Eggers’ use of typical folklore story to introduce newer perspective about witchcraft is more compelling. But, still does that trite imagery of coven necessary? I felt that ending was uncalled-for. As the closing card says lot of dialogues are derived from the era’s journals and diaries, and so the presence of thee, thou, shalt may irk some younger viewers. The unsettling ambiance reminded me of Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” and Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf” and Von Trier’s “Antichrist”, whereas the symmetrical framing and foreboding, shrieking score brought to mind the ingenious Kubrick (DoP by Jarin Blaschke, who has worked with Eggers from his short film days). Eggers permeation of visual horror is commendable. The unflinching formal structure of the shots dares us to imagine the wickedness rather than blatantly show it. Eggers casting of Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw in the roles of Thomasin and Caleb is perfect, and it is their commitment that doesn’t turn the dreadful atmosphere silly (especially the exorcism didn’t come off contrived). The face of gloom-tinged Taylor-Joy possesses us long before her own possession. 


                                           “The Witch: A New-England Folktale" (90 minutes) considerably reworks a tired horror trope by employing an enrapturing atmosphere. It definitely lags at times, but its pensive symbols and artfully designed terror stand out.