Last Days in the Desert [2015] – A Low-Key Meditation on Humanity of Jesus


“What part of bird doesn’t fly?

It’s shadow”

                                    Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia’s thought-provoking drama “Last Days in the Desert” (2015) chronicles the journey of a man, wandering the desert for 40 days, trying to find answers, and surrounded by doubts and temptations. In his journey, a young boy, on the cusp of adulthood asks him the aforementioned riddle. The man wants to take off like the bird, soar high above with abundance of faith, but then there’s a ‘shadow’ that follows him, constantly reminding him of uncertainty, entrapment and the futility to trust in humanity. The vitality of this man’s journey becomes evident, when we hear his name ‘Yeshua’ – the Hebrew name for Jesus – and he is tormented by ‘Lucifer’ himself. Strangely, the devil or Satan also takes the form of Yeshua, wondering whether it can weave its seductive power on the self-doubting, desert-wandering holy-man. In the biblical passages, there’s a reference to Christ’s 40 days of prayer, during which he is confronted by Satan with three temptations. Rodrigo Garcia takes this smaller material to imagine Jesus as a man with his own existential crisis rather than present him from a symbolic or mythical perspective.

                                       Of course, this isn’t the first attempt at such an approach. Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis’ monumental interpretation of the Gospels in “The Last Temptation of Christ” (and Martin Scorsese’s wonderful movie version) depicted Jesus’ profoundly human side, including the torments and anger. The highlighting of the savior’s human side, his pain and suffering made his sacrifice much bigger. Then, there was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s glorious, revisionist take in “The Gospel According to St. Mathew” (1964). While Garcia’s film neither has the zeal of those movies to connect viewers on an emotional level nor profound enough to dive deep into the philosophical debates, it does provide some space to ruminate upon the relatable, inner struggles which would continue to plague human relationships and their faith. The other vital reason to watch this film is to witness the lingering, beautiful shorts of stark desert-scape from the most sought-out cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  

                                              Writer/director Rodrigo Garcia’s films mostly focus on the internal conflict – between self and ego. His central characters have been predominantly women – “Things You Can Tell by Just Looking at Her”, “Nine Lives”, “Mother and Child”, “Albert Nobbs” – and the narrative are set in contemporary era. He has taken a different path with “Last Days in the Desert”, designing it as the story of sons, trying their best to carve a destiny for themselves under the oppressive fathers. He has also tried a restrained approach to keep the viewers at mild distance and exclude his usual dose of melodrama. I won’t say that Garcia’s distinct approach has paid off perfectly, but for the most part the narrative latches onto a appropriate mood to instill contemplation. The film starts at the last days of Yeshua’s (Ewan McGregor) desert journey, where he encounters a family of three and gradually gets embroiled in their conflicts. The isolated family’s mother (Ayelet Zurer) is dying, the son (Tye Sheridan) wants to leave the desert to make his own destiny in Jerusalem, and the proud father (Ciaran Hinds) wants his son to commit himself to the desert life and uphold his honor. The father doesn’t understand his son’s dreams and in his desperation he slowly resents the son. Yeshua spends time with each family member and begins to empathize with their plight. The father-son issue makes him draw parallels with his own conflict. The smirking Lucifer who accompanies Yeshua in his journey challenges him to solve all the familial conflict to their individual satisfaction.

                                            Similar to the other great interpretative works on God’s son, Garcia’s script captures the pensive nature and dreadful moments of Jesus’ human side. With an absence of a wise narrator from above guiding him, Yeshua is shown to be a man with great knowledge and wisdom, but gets trapped when using those to eradicate life struggles. He understands the people’s struggles, but the path to bring peace to their life seems so twisted. The film’s heavier themes like mortality, sacrifice, and redemption weren’t dealt with a profundity I expected, but the universal human dilemmas addressed in the narrative brought up enough emotional resonance. The inevitable path we take to hurt the ones we love the most, the inner conflicts during the agonizing period when the child becomes a grown-up, the little gatherings of resentment in our heart which gradually transforms the relationship dynamics, and the notions of communication are some of the relatable aspects in the narrative for me. Of course, the contemplation on these familiar conflicts could happen only after penetrating through the hardened, dry narrative surface. The emotional distance and lingering on the stark landscape that wants to provide spiritual nourishment for the viewers becomes too aloof at times to derail the viewer’s interest. There’s couple of truly good sequences (the one where the devil teases Yeshua with knowledge of alternate versions of the universe, and the scene of great tragedy) which stirs our soul, but other than those, we are demanded of a tireless mind to interpret or relate the meaning. What wanted to be a poignant conflict teeters dangerously over the edge, threatening to transcend into a tedious chore. 

                                              Although the philosophical debates aren’t deep, Garcia has written some good one-liners: “Action over words, otherwise silence”; “Failure is its own punishment”; “A lie hurts the person who tells it”. Emmanuel Lubezki’s wide-open cinematography does help a lot to stave off the tediousness. Garcia and Lubezki have done a wonderful job of framing Yeshua as one tiny blip in a vast universe. The camera movements aren’t as transcendent as in the spiritual journeys of Malick’s works, but still it hovers as a perfect stand-in to elegantly follow Yeshua’s turbulent inner state. Apart from the slightly dubious Scottish accent, Ewan MacGregor was convincing as the doubt-filled Yeshua and pleasurably impish as the tempting ‘Lucifer’. The ending I felt was frustratingly ambiguous. It makes us ask how the answer to the family’s conflicts impacts Yeshua’s destiny and perspective. Did the noble, divine being’s inner conflicts derive any resolutions by witnessing the struggles of the family? It remains unnecessarily elusive (the final shot of crucifixion was well shot, but it also felt like a formal ending, straying away from addressing the profound layers). 



                                                 Due to its emotional bluntness, “Last Days in the Desert” (98 minutes) doesn’t quite transcend to be the best take on Jesus’ human nature and his temptations. However, viewers with patience to take in an introspective narrative could discover some thoughtful nuggets. 

Submarine [2010] – An Achingly Sensitive Exploration of Teenage Existence

                                       Joe Dunthorne’s first novel and Richard Ayoade’s adapation of the novel,  explores variety of relevant adolescent themes to be bestowed with the perfect title – “Submarine”. Similar to that man-made vessel’s exploration of physical, biological and chemical conditions on the hard-to-fathom ocean bed, the film (as well as the novel) takes us below the blank expressions of a teenager to comprehend the inner emotional turmoil. A long movie list could be conjured on the subject of on-screen brainy, emotionally-stunted, misunderstood teen protagonists. “Submarine’s” Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) has these well-known (or well-worn) characteristics. He is highly self-conscious, makes wry comments, and clumsy when it comes to social behavior. The widening eyes of Oliver seem to reflect the slowly diffusing emotional pains of being an adolescent. In the narrative course, he will come to terms with his sexuality, identity, romantic relationship, and the looming possibility of separating from parents. His comfort zones are incinerated and he is thrown out of the luxurious cocoon into the whole wide world. The effervescent first-person narrative and the inherent quirkiness make “Submarine” perfectly entertaining. Its quirky tone doesn’t flatten the coming-of-age themes, but rather makes us charge deep into the emotional depths, reminding us our own little emotional damages during that phase of life.

                                         Of all the coming-of-age tale protagonists, Oliver Tate is a very relatable character (although Oliver himself is a combination of different literary and cinematic characters). Grandiose fantasies, pre-occupation about increasing social status (‘street cred’) and the miserable present, feelings of insignificance, isolation, blurting about some random fact to come off as intelligent boy, strange hobbies, awkwardly observing your schoolmates from the periphery, distressing sense of finitude and the quirky fascination with death. The film is set in Swansea, South Wales, in the mid 1980’s, the era when John Hughes made movies with tenacious teenagers. In the opening scene, we see Oliver, huddling near his room’s window as a bluish light of early morning flows through. The books shelf and the poignant reminders of childhood (photos) indicates the robust intelligent and emotional side, although his perception of current reality (learned through the quirky first-person narration) shows the usual disillusionment we all face during puberty. Oliver has decided not be an active participant in his own life. He stays on the outer boundaries to observe his parents, classmates and cooks up fantasies when it comes to personal interaction.

                                     Oliver’s prudish mother Jill (Sally Hawkins) seems to be contemplating worn-down relationship with her husband Lloyd (Noah Taylor), a marine biologist, who has become stagnant and running into the deeper rungs of depression. They both veer in-between satisfaction and bewilderment, just like Oliver himself. The arrival of mother’s old flame Graham (Paddy Considine) – as new neighbor – makes Oliver wonder about the instability of his home life. Graham is a mystic self-help guru, who seems fascinating, at least on the surface. At school, Oliver has no friends, but only the stylized vision of how the townspeople would mourn if he is dead (especially the female schoolmates cry a lot). In a bemused state, he participates in a round of bullying an overweight girl Zoe Preece and pushes her into a puddle. This particular incident haunts Oliver and his ensuing sympathy for the girl is an essential element for his emotional progress. Oliver’s primary goal in school is to increase the street cred by forming a connection with the moderately popular, ‘bad’ girl Jordana (Yasmin Paige). Jordana is cloaked in a red coat, signifying Oliver’s perception of seeing her as an object to further his social status. At later points, the color ‘red’ takes different meaning and Jordana grows bigger than being an object of desire. The other important task at hand is to obliterate any possibility for the rekindling of a relationship between his mom and Graham.   

                                         The adolescent phase is pretty much like traveling in a submarine, gazing through a small window at the dark, swirling creatures of outside world. The newly triggered sexual desires and instinct for aggression unsettles and disrupts our version of reality. We become an enigma to our parents and our parents’ relationship would seem like a paradox. We delve into the deepest depths to not get thrown out of our comfort zone, while at the same time we make fantasies out of the possibly emerging, new experiences. We struggle deeply to keep our turbulent emotions submerged. We’d like to wade deep into the water, but also afraid of getting fully drenched. We want everyone in our limited world to understand us, but at the same time we remain unable to relate to other persons. We jail ourselves inside a bubble, while hatching grand plans for romantic relationship or at least human connection. We desire a partner in order to only reach ourselves or to figure out who we are rather than having a genuine interest on the other person (probably this we do as adults too!). And, finally we are made to come to terms with the flaws of our own parents, which is initially painful to tolerate.  Oliver Tate’s adolescent trajectory in “Submarine” takes this usual path, but what makes this journey into adolescence fascinating hinges upon two vital aspects: Ayoade’s impeccably crafted visual language; and Craig Roberts’ exemplary, easily relatable introverted behavior.

                                           Director Ayoade balances between the use of colors blue (associated with stability, trust, truth etc – in American culture blue is known as color of depression) and red (associated with love, loss, passion, etc) to signify the conflicting emotions faced by Oliver. Water is used as an important visual metaphor (a symbol for purity, life, cleansing – what does it signify here?). From fish tanks to dirty puddles to vast sea, water recurrently occupies the frames. As Oliver and Jordana gazes into the sea, they seem to be contemplating the ongoing flow of time (which brings unbridled agonies and joys). Water seems to be emphasizing their important transcendent phase in life. Cinematographer Erik Wilson and Ayoade make the action flow smoothly with lack of fast cuts. Even in the hand-held shots, a sense of atmosphere reflects in the frame rather than bluntly following the subjects (some extreme close-ups might be deemed unnecessary). The most striking aspects of the imagery are the dilapidated industrial vistas and the coastal surroundings. There’s also something pleasing in the way Ayoade has opted to shoot outdoor sequences in natural light. Some of the timeless qualities of the visuals are heightened by original songs (written by Alex Turner and composed by Andrew Hewitt).

                                                   The visual style and the characters would immediately remind us of Wes Anderson and Hal Ashby’s death-obsessed teenager in “Harold and Maude” (1971). Unlike Anderson’s indulgence with magical realism, Ayoade’s work uses the surface quirkiness to explore the ‘false-self’ and pseudo-mature proclamations. Dunthorne’s novel and Ayoade’s adapted script has plenty of timeless, quotable dialogues [“Dear Jordana. Thank you for letting me explore your perfect body. I could drink your blood, you are the only person that I would allow to be shrunken down to a microscopic size and swim inside me in a tiny submersible machine” – one of my favorite lines]. The primary challenge in adapting a coming-of-age novel and using a first person voice-over narrative is to rise above the well-mined tropes, and to not repeat the emotions again and again. Ayoade acknowledges the inescapable cliched pits that accompany such a story. What he does best is to make the primary characters real and relatable so that we don’t care much about the small, familiar paths the tale takes. The film boasts nuanced performances from all the members of the cast. From Craig Roberts to Sally Hawkins, every character seems outlandish on the outset, but they elegantly convey their personalities. Roberts’ Oliver Tate and Paige’ Jordana are diffused with amazing intricacy that they could become iconic characters in the future (especially Jordana will be an iconic ‘first-love’ character in cinema – Paige’s stoic face is unforgettable). 


                                               “Submarine” (97 minutes) is about the forceful fantasies we indulged ourselves as a teenager to transcend the humdrum existence. It subtly explores the adolescent phase in which our ideas about world doesn’t match with the reality we face. It shows that self-realization we attained when looking at this world through a fresh set of adult eyes.  


Love & Friendship [2016] – A Nuanced Comedy on Hidebound Manners

                                      American author and film-maker Whit Stillman in the 1990’s made three films – “Metropolitan”, “Barcelona”, and “The Last Days of Disco” [Criterion released them as ‘A Whit Stillman Trilogy'] – about erudite upper class youngsters (the 1 percenters), starving for love and caught in between the transitional phase of social changes. But, these aren’t melancholic films as the astute observations of characters (and their tireless sarcasm) make it a wonderful comedy of manners. Stillman’s focus on etiquette and witty conversation from his feature-debut has made critics to draw delightful comparisons to Jane Austen. With his fifth film “Love & Friendship” (2016), he has chosen to adapt Austen’s lesser known work (the novella called ‘Lady Susan’). The director’s acute perception to look beyond the surface gentility into the social warfare, waged by powerless woman, in fact makes this film one of the best works to scale the depths of Austen’s writing. “Love & Friendship” is one of the best social satires on the hermetically sealed 18th century upper class Britain.

                                        Stillman’s film is not a revisionist work so as to engage the attention of those who hate costume dramas. The rapid dialogue delivery (the dense, witty nature of the dialogues made me to watch it second time) plus the distant and ironic style may not be preferred by average movie-watching audience. Nevertheless, those with patient, observant eye could immensely enjoy the way ‘Lady Susan’ elegantly moves through the labyrinthine class rules of her time. Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is what the 1790’s British woman whispered as the ‘very accomplished flirt’. She has perfected her skills in wreaking havoc upon families and also developed an indifference to remain oblivious of the mayhem she had caused. She has been recently widowed and forced to bank on the kindness of men in her social circle. But, she’s a marvelous manipulator whose sweet words would change any detractor. She often uses the word ‘but’ in conversations to easily convince others of her contrasting ideas. In short, Lady Susan adds great depth to the word ‘charming’, which we would otherwise consider as a very simple word. When the film begins, Lady Susan head bowed down gets into a coach to go away from Langford, in the wake of a scandal with a married man, Lord Manwaring. Now, Susan is depends on her in-laws hospitality at Churchill.

                                           The affability of her ‘obliging’ brother-in law Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) is the target. The sister-in-law Catherine (Emma Greenwell) is well aware of Susan’s bewitching ways to always stay alert. But she is horrified, when her handsome, young brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) – the only heir of DeCourcy – empathizes for Susan and slowly falls prey to her flirtation. The cajoling moves Lady Susan makes on Reginald are pretty much like watching a chess game as she finds every loophole to bruise Reginald’s pride (“there’s a certain pleasure in making a person predetermined to dislike instead acknowledging one’s superiority” says Susan to her impoverished friend). Susan’s elaborate plan runs into trouble when her young daughter Frederica (Moryfdd Clark) runs away from school and opposes the idea of marrying Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). The intelligent girl is against the marriage of convenience, but as Susan explains “Dear, our present comfortable state is at the most precarious sort. We don’t live. We visit”. A little conversation with Sir James, of course, makes us understand Frederica’s fear for marriage. Sir James Martin’ clueless nature is surpassed only by his ability to make doltish comments to ruin the conversations. Frederica is clearly taken in by Reginald’s looks and wisdom. In one of her many sharply comical contentions, Susan asks “How many suitors of great wisdom could a young woman expect to find these days? None. And, I confess, I ask myself is such a quality even desirable in a husband?” The only soul with whom Susan genuinely shares her inner feelings and devious designs is the friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny). Alicia’s old husband (Stephen Fry) is the only sensible man, disapproving the methods of his wife’s bosom friend. Susan often laments about Alicia’s choice for a husband, blaming the gout’s failure to send him to a permanent resting place.

                                            “Lady Susan” was an earlier work of Jane Austen (unpublished during the author’s lifetime), which is different from Austen’s principled characters in her accomplished works. This is a wonderful tale of ambition and power among women, who were at the mercy of class rules designed by men. Susan knows that the mere affection of a man wouldn’t keep her forever in the material comforts. So, she subtly uses the limits placed upon to her own ends. Everyone stumbles in front of Susan’s reasoning and observation of inconsistencies. Even the young woman skeptical of the idea of marriage, Frederica, relegates to the background, whom would otherwise be the protagonist in a traditional Austen novel. But, Lady Susan is not just a distinct creation in Austen’s universe; she is one of the unique female characters, set in that period (18th century Britain). Only after her schemes get the relevant results, we know that she was scheming (the only thing that gives an idea about Susan’s plans are her costumes – she starts from stark black mourning dress to end with vivacious red dress) While women’s desire for power and ambition is often shown as morally reprehensible, Lady Susan isn’t punished by the storyteller for being immoral. In fact, director Stillman keeps her at a distance and make us feel the truth in her words [“I have noticed where there’s a disposition to dislike, a pretext will soon be found”] that gradually we can’t stop admiring the ‘genius’ behind those cunning ideas. And, Kate Beckinsale after doing a lot of tiring and insipid roles gives one of her most deliciously best performance. With a little feeble smile and slight tilt of head, she punches in the (figurative) daggers to change one’s mind. At first, Beckinsale makes Susan a cold lady with an unwavering countenance. But, slowly through comically vicious nature (her amazing delivery of the epigrams made me pause the film a lot of times) she becomes so engaging and even heroic.

                                             Although many of the greatest lines are said to be taken from the text, writer/director Stillman includes many of his own, delicious words. He adds enjoyable campy introductions to the handful of characters [Lord Manwaring is referred as ‘A divinely handsome young man’, while Sir James Martin comes with a title ‘A bit of a rattle’] which actually works in favor for the film’s wickedly droll tone. Stillman’s works are not much known for visual designs, although his efficiently assembled filming of the conversation (cinematography by Richard Van Oosterhout) and unfussy camera movements in this film serves the basic functionality. It’s also good to see that Stillman doesn’t linger on pastoral landscape to keep his attention only on the ongoing social battle of Susan to gain strength. Lady Susan’s character might have been designed in the most perfect way to eliminate any possibility of a worthy adversary, but the actors playing the restless, swindled, and cajoled characters turn in a brilliant performance to overlook such flaws. Tom Bennett scene-stealing presence as Sir James could be one of the funniest characters in costume dramas.     



                                             While Jane Austen’s works are being used as launch-pad for literary spin-offs, Whit Stillman in “Love & Friendship” (93 minutes) does something totally fresh so as to beautifully re-orient the beloved author’s timeless themes. For those on the lookout for a smartest costume drama, this is a must watch.  


‘As Lithe and Fierce as a Tiger’: The Investigating Judge in “Z”

 “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. The quote is attributed to British statesman, orator and political thinker Edmund Burke and it’s the one we often hear in movies, books, and public speeches. It is the kind of powerful words which forces us to shed our apathy. However, considering the intricate and unfathomable structure of evil in modern (so-called democratic) society, we are plagued with two questions regarding the quote: Is it possible to stand against evil forces? And if we did would it make any difference (in the long-run)? I mean, won’t the good forces that want to overthrow the evil, corrupt ones, themselves get corrupted by the luster of power?  May be that’s too much of pondering. To prove that we are a human being with fine perception, we definitely need to stand against the gathering forces of evil. Yes, it’s the right thing to do. Nevertheless, the toughest fight people wage in modern societies is to find an answer to this question: What is politically good and what’s politically evil?

We know the basic actions which divide good and evil deeds, but whenever you throw a word like ‘politics’ into the mixture, the good could be perverted and evil will be glamorized. Many lives are literally sacrificed, around the world for centuries, in a fight over this question. Actually, the answer is simple: speaking truth, nothing but truth. Even when a formidable power breathes down your neck, you should speak truth, be true to your sense of duty in order to seek the real justice (not the idea of justice which our bureaucracy hands over).  Of course, it is easier said than done. But, in greatest works of art we often see the engaging arc, where indomitable evil disintegrates with a person’s pursuit for truth. It might be the oldest narrative arc in cinema, but one which has the power to awaken or at least educate the masses.

Costa-Gavras incendiary political thriller “Z” (1969), based on Vassilis Vassilikos 1966 novel, has one of the most important characters in cinema – Jean-Louis Trintignant’s “The Investigating Judge” (or ‘Examining Magistrate’), a man who placed truth above ideology and greater powers. His actions and duties always faces the threat of being rendered futile by illustrious evil-doers, but his simple act of seeking and speaking truth gives abundance of hope in an otherwise unjust society. 

Director Costa-Gavras, the Greek expatriate, who studied film in France, and his Spanish writer Jorge Semprun state in their introductory title: “Any reference to real events and persons living or dead is not accidental. It is deliberate”. The words acknowledge how “Z” is about to chronicle the events before, during, and after the assassination of the Greek pacifist and social democrat Grigoris Lambrakis (on May 1963), in Thessaloniki. Although the film doesn’t mention any names, it is considered to be daring for its detailed (and little satirical) portrayal of a political murder. As critic Armond White says in his article for ‘Criterion’, “It took a European with one foot in a family political legacy and the other in cinematic craft to update the political thriller in terms both commercial and vital.”

Despite the political immediacy or historical specificity, “Z” stands as a timeless, powerful indictment of fascist powers. From this perspective, Roger Ebert’s words rings true: "“Z" is about...the assassination, six years ago, of a leader of the political opposition in Greece. It is also about all the rest of them. For Americans, it is about the My Lai massacre, the killing of Fred Hampton, the Bay of Pigs. It is no more about Greece than The Battle of Algiers was about Algeria. It is a film of our time. It is about how even moral victories are corrupted. It will make you weep and will make you angry. It will tear your guts out”.

 Without wasting a single second, Gavras and Semprun, quickly introduces string of vital characters and builds up to the assassination sequence. The second part delves into the intricately detailed cover-up efforts made by government officials alongside the starting phase of investigation, led by Trintingnant’s ‘Investigating Judge’. The third act is more riveting than the first two as the bespectacled ‘judge’ with a stoic facade pursues truth to break open the conspiracy. 

Trintignant character was obviously inspired from Christos Sartzetakis, the man who prosecuted the real ‘Lambrakis’ assassins. Although Sartzetakis was an anti-communist Greek nationalist, he didn’t allowed his ideology to get in the way of truth. For which he was imprisoned, tortured after the coup d’etat by Greek military junta in April, 1967. After the restoration of democracy, Sartzetakis eventually went on to become the nation’s President (in 1985) and was widely respected for his integrity. Earlier in the film, the pacifist organization’s members meet Public Prosecutor to convey the information they received about alleged assassination attempt on their leader (Yves Montand). That’s when we first see the ‘magistrate’ as he is introduced by Public prosecutor to the pacifist organization members. The magistrate has a stern face whose big, dark glass masks his emotions. 

Christos Sartzetakis

 Later, when the investigation begins and gradually becomes the backbone of the narrative, the ‘Investigating Judge’ aka ‘Le juge d’instruction’ finds himself surrounded by men capable of manipulating the facts for their own political ends. Jacques Perrin’s journalist (a go-getter) plays a vital role, as he is the one able to bring out the identities of both accomplices and witnesses (he is not just doing it for a sensational story and he's also apolitical like the magistrate). The real-life Sartzetakis must have had the sole goal of pursuing truth without compromising his integrity and would have never thought of himself like a crusader. But, the manner with which Gavras diffuses a sense of emotional urgency into the tale slowly transforms ‘the investigating judge’ from being an honest man to a crusading hero (without ever taking sides). 

Unlike agitated protagonists burdened to bring out the truth, Trintignant’s character seems unfazed. He is a very real character, who searches for truth from the heap of alleged facts. We are more engaged in his steady pursuit for truth by the maintenance of an emotional distance. There’s an inherent melodramatic nature to the story, which is countered by the ‘investigation judge’s’ unaffected, unyielding methods. In one brilliant scene, we suddenly hear him stop addressing the alleged assassination as ‘incident’ to call it a ‘murder’. That small change in words elegantly conveys the character’s conviction. 

During the investigation from the low gang members Yago & Vago to high-ranking General they use the phrase ‘as lithe and fierce, like a tiger’ while explaining about an incident after the ‘accident’ or ‘alleged assassination’. It is a wonder how in reality these conspirators (who hatched out a perfect plan) would go and repeat the same lying excuse in their testimonies. They all might have been coached to give some specific answers, but not to use the same phrase. But, Gavras includes such light humor (along with few other visual laughs) to provide a counterweight to the documentary-like approach. And, when the phrase – lithe and fierce, like a tiger -- is repeatedly told, it becomes fitting words to explain the unwavering methods of our ‘investigation judge’.  Director Gavras doesn’t include any ‘buffer’ scenes to soften the impact viewers feel after disclosure of information. For example, the nation’s prosecutor (a old man wearing dark glasses) arrives at the city and expresses his dread over the direction the investigation has gone into. He offers ways to blunt the outcome of investigation, by placing the blame wholly on two fanatic men and further tempts the ‘investigating judge’ with better offers. 

 When the aforementioned sequence cuts, we don’t see Trintignant’s characters contemplating or discussing with his subordinate about the decision he should make. Gavras abruptly cuts to the short of a military general, furiously entering into the interrogation room. The investigating judge with the same indifferent expression asks “Name and Profession” to finally read the charge, ‘you’re indicted for premeditated murder’. It is a wonderful sequence (one of my most favorite one in cinema), which conveys the unwavering nature of the ‘judge’ without an inclusion of a highly dramatic buffer scene. Gavras rather includes little drama to satirize the behavior of government officials after the indictment (all of them trying to escape through a short pathway find the door closed and walk through the slew of pestering journalists). The humiliation faced by corrupted officials when the investigating judge simply asks their ‘name and profession’ comes off more revolutionary and entertaining than a sequence, which involves a protagonist bashing group of bad men. And, more than any other hero material, prone to violent tactics, Trintignant’s judge perfectly embeds the idea of citizen duties and integrity – the notion I feel more important in an increasingly apathetic society. 

Jean-Louis Trintignant’s minimalist performance earned him the Best Actor award at 1969 Cannes Film Festival. Impassive gaze has always been the great strength for the actor. In “Z”, he holds our attention with a simple, dispassionate look through the geeky glass. The end credits in “Z” rather than being awashed by rainbow-colored optimism cynically showcases the repulsive clampdown on everything from ‘mini-skirts’ to the word ‘Z’ [the Greek protest slogan ‘zi’ means ‘he lives’ – a reference to Lambrakis]. 

The ending echoes the persistent efforts of political conspirators & war-mongers to upend democracy, but as in reality (in relation to what happened to Greek military junta) truth and truthful men will eventually prevail (although the sacrifices to attain that would be enormous). Men like Sartzetakis and his appeasing cinematic counterpart ‘Investigating Judge’ plus those who stood by truth in the investigation are the ones, who give us abundance of courage and hope, while swimming through the currents of inhumanity. They pushes us to witness the meaning of George Orwell words: “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act”. 

Krisha [2015] – A Well-Crafted Downward Spiral

                                            Trey Edward Shults’ debut indie feature “Krisha” (2015) opens with the face of a woman in her sixties with a grey curled hair and a lined face. She, the title character, is staring at viewers with a raw expression which is full of fear, remorse and desperation. Then, we see her shuffling up to a big, suburban house, reminding herself, ‘Calm down. Just chill’. The camera creeps up behind Krisha, accentuating the tension she must feel while walking towards the sister’s house. She is the basket case or black sheep of the family. The opening shot plus the free-floating point-of-view sets up a micro-budgeted horror movie tone. It’s as if the central character is walking into a congregation of demons, disaster looming around the corner. Or, may be she is the demon waiting to wreak havoc upon the Thanksgiving weekend family gathering. “Krisha” is not the kind of horror movie we expect. The ghosts here are metaphorical. There’s an impeccably crafted atmosphere of dread, but it is the kind of dread we feel while getting acquainted with the ‘happy’ family members after a long gap. There would be warmth in their hug, but an underlying judgmental sting would gradually occupy the ensuing interactions. You can imagine how such a gathering would incite conflicting emotions on the family’s ‘black sheep’ (or as one character says in the film ‘the abandoneer, heart-break incarnate’).  

                                             “Krisha” tracks down the downward spiral of an old woman (a recovering alcoholic addict) over a 24 hour visit to her sister’s house. It is the kind of theme that’s repeatedly staged by indie films to be totally transformed into a cliche. The addicted lead character would despicably relapse, spewing hate upon the people who really cared for them. Part of the relapse would be kindled by the judgmental gaze of the family’s adults. The narrative beats could be predicted in such tales, long before it comes into our view. The message in the end would either be less astute or too stilted to give an authentic, riveting experience. Trey’s indie debut doesn’t circumvent the alleged cliches. In fact, its bare-bones plot-line is filled with a highly predictable structure, but at the same time Trey has also diffused enough sumptuous meat around the bare-bones through resolute performances and unique technical presentation. The sound design, camerawork, editing, the performance of Krisha Fairchild, and the story behind how it got made, makes “Krisha” an impressive character study of a woman with volcanic emotions.

                                                 Writer/director/editor Trey thanks his family and friends in the end credits, not just for the mental support they have provided him. Trey’s family had literally supported him by playing themselves on-screen. The director played the role of estranged son, while casting his aunt Krisha Fairchild (who had an unremarkable acting career) as the absent mother and his own mother became the tale’s surrogate mother. Director’s Trey dementia-afflicted 92 year old grandmother’s presence is the exuberant factor of the narrative. The very old woman didn’t even know she was in a movie and the scene, where she remembers her own mother and family lineage brings about an unstaged subtext to the film. Professional actors are also present alongside the real family members. The best among those is Bill Wise, who plays the ‘uncle’ character – the one who initiates the bittersweet conversation with Krisha on the porch. While the mother and son conflict is cooked up for the narrative, there are many other personal elements that made into the story. For example, director Trey as in the movie character ‘Trey’ has been asked by parents to join business school and get a good job (Trey Shults quit business school to work as intern in Terrence Malick’s films, including the upcoming documentary “Voyage of Time”). Shot over 9 days in his mother’s house in Texas, Trey Shults’ movie is really an inspiration for young film-makers with a limited budget, but a moving personal story to tell. “Krisha” went on to win audience award and Grand Jury prize at SXSW 2015 plus the ‘John Cassavettes Award’ at Indie Spirits (was also selected for the Cannes Film Festival’s Critics’ Week).

                                                 Krisha’s attempt to control her neuroses, the wavering stability, as she searches through cabinets for stashed away bottles, and the gradually gathering of personal traumas are resonated through hard-to-shake-off graphic depictions. If the camera movements has the influence of Malick’s works, these heart-breaking episodes of relapse reminds us of Darren Aronofsky’s earlier works. Director Trey perfectly depicts the desperation one experiences, while fearing about their fall amongst family members. The mounting desperation of Krisha seems to be heightened by the cacophonous, non-stop chatter of the youngsters, playing sports or teasing each other. This atmosphere of chaos and dread isn’t visualized through shaky camera movements. Trey and cinematographer Drew Daniels mostly use Steadicam shots and elegant slow zooms to capture small bitter glances and an unnerving happy facade. The camera becomes the perfect stand-in for Krisha’s eyes, which looks everywhere at once trying to process things through all the raucousness. The baleful buzzing (and discordant notes) in the soundtrack keeps us on the edge to look out for descent into devastation. Eventually, more than Trey Shults impressive artistry, the formidable element of the film is Krisha Fairchild’s performance. Her shocked as well as silent expressions perfectly showcase the tiny emotional fractures, waiting to upend Krisha’s constancy. The ‘less-is-more’ acting approach of Fairchild spikes our empathy levels.


                                               “Krisha” (83 minutes) is a small, indie movie that takes the well-worn shell of a dysfunctional family drama and transcends it effectively through a distinct film form and vivacious writing (which is derived from deeply personal experiences). It’s the kind of upsetting personal cinema, which definitely won’t give a palatable movie experience for many viewers.    


Shelley [2016] – The Escalated Terrors of Gestation

                                                The unsettling psychological disturbances a woman’s mind occupies, while she is biologically occupied to bear a child is one dread-filled theme used often in movies. From Polanski’s “Rosemary Baby”, a bunch of films under the body-horror sub-genre have dramatized the nightmarish effects of having children. Known as ‘baby-horror’ or ‘natal horror’, these kind of slow-burning Gothic horror relies more on a perfect mood and atmosphere. Iranian-Danish film-maker Ali Abbasi’s debut feature “Shelley” (2016) has got both those things right. The film is set on a dense forest, far removed from the modern comforts. The couples occupying such a countryside house are Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Kasper (Peter Christoffersen). They are leading a self-sufficient life by growing their own food, and getting by without electricity or running water. Louise spends her time alone as Kasper is often occupied with whatever work he does in the city. The absence of electricity necessitates the use of candle lights, which makes the modern cottage looks like a Gothic building. So, the atmosphere is more than perfect (cinematographers Nadim Carlson and Sturla Brandth Grovlen previously worked on the marvelous one-shot movie “Victoria”). 

                                                The dreadful mood is also set off well by two of the most talented actresses – Cosmina Stratan (the unforgettable performer in “Beyond the Hills”) and Petersen (played the touching role of visually challenged woman in “Blind”). The impeccably diffused sound design and a terrifying, ambient music score adds a lot to the mood. The combination of these elements made me think that “Shelley” must be one of the best horrors of 2016. Alas, Mr. Ali Abbasi fumbles with pacing issues and makes a big switch with character dynamics, leaving us out in the cold, and killing our emotional investment. The problem with the film is not that there is no grand narrative development, but only that the horror elements in the later stages are explained in the vaguest sense, which totally doesn’t convey the fear we felt in the earlier stages. Still, the film’s distinct imagery and palpable tension makes it worthy enough to give it a watch. 

                                              The film opens with Cosmina Stratan’s Elena arriving at Louise and Kaspar’s cottage as the live-in help. She is an economic migrant from Bucharest (Romania), where she has left her little son. Elena is initially disconcerted by the couple’s strict ecological lifestyle, but showcasing a note of aloofness, she gets settled soon. Elena naturally dispels a little bit of gloom when she learns about the landline to call her son, back home. The live-in help is mainly hired since Louise is recovering from painful miscarriage and after the last operation, it seems Louise can’t have any children. Although the two women simple yearning to be a mother is barricaded by different situations, they doesn’t keep things to themselves or play the role of servant and master. A genuine friendship forms between them by each sharing their agonies and future dreams. Elena says she has to work for three years in order to save and buy a house back home to eventually live there. Soon, Louise makes an offer Elena couldn’t resist: to be a surrogate mother for a generous financial offering. Apart from the huge sum of money, Elena agrees to the offer due to her inherent kind-hearted nature. And, after insemination their relationship gets friendlier, although we pick up few ‘horrific’ signs that usually happen in movies with supernatural pregnancy. Elena’s earlier joy disintegrates by series of weird events, including recurrent nightmares. Louise finds bruises and scratches on Elena’s body (possibly self-inflicted) and tries her best to bring down the pregnant women’s torments. The increasing misery makes Elena believe that what’s growing inside her isn’t what it seems.    

                                              Writer/director Ali Abbasi brilliantly makes use of the claustrophobia, eeriness attached with such an oppressive atmosphere and embeds it alongside the heightened anxieties related to pregnancy. The way he characterizes both the women with poignancy and the subtle design of mood makes the large section of film so chilling. The menace created is mostly implicit and Abbasi creates this menace through natural conversations and by a silent gaze at the dense forest. Except for those frustrating final scenes, the director doesn’t break away from that astounding subtlety (where the threatening force is explicitly stated). The narrative’s steady advancement to something really scary is halted by the abstract themes of horror, which doesn’t possess the earlier unsettling effect. The film could be perceived as a dissection of modern class differences. Abbasi doesn’t paint the affluent couple as the antagonists nor does he use ‘fish-eye’ lenses to indicate their deranged state. He calmly blurs the profound class differences between the couple and Elena, only to evoke strongly at a later point. Abbasi uses the inbred egotism and unavoidable self-centered behavior of Louise and Kasper as the antagonists rather than simply portraying them as ‘bad seed’. The narrative could be seen as a dark fable for how the unprivileged are pulled in to do something humane, in exchange of little sum of money, only to be exploited in the worst possible way. Of course, an allegorical statement, if there was one, was never clearly stated. Despite the obvious, third-act disappointments, one of the other redeeming element of “Shelley” is the magnificent chemistry between Cosmina Stratan and Ellen Doritt Petersen. Their conversations and the showcase of genuine concern in their eyes make us desire for a non-horror narrative (may be a simple tale of women bonding). 


                                                    Despite the uninteresting third-act in “Shelley” (92 minutes), the nuanced layer of social critique and impressively crafted tension makes it as one watchable, vicious, little horror movie. Its malevolent qualities are much stronger, compared to other, recent trashy pregnancy horror films.