Tickets [2005] – One Journey and Three Nuanced Tales of Self-Discovery

A train journey offers a host of amusing possibilities. A train environment possesses wider social canvas, through which we get to learn different human contexts, discover friendships, and renew hope in humankind. In cinema, train has always been a significant backdrop. We cannot understand the terror the audience of 1896 must have felt when they saw Lumiere Brothers’ short black-and-white silent clip of a train rushing on to the platform of a station (the audience thought the train might burst out of the screen). From silent comedy masterpiece (The General) to Hitchcockian suspense (The Lady Vanishes) to the recent action thrillers like Snowpiercer & Train to Busan, trains were used as the perfect tools to generate the thrill of genre pictures. But rarely do we get to see a picture like Tickets (2005), which uses train as more than a genre attraction. It rather explores the transitioning inner emotions of people on the move.

‘Tickets’ (2005) is a portmanteau film, popularized by the old European film-makers (from 40s through 60s). Portmanteau films (or anthology films) are made up of two or more stories (each section directed by different film-makers) that mildly interrelate (and unified by same theme or genre). Making portmanteau films are bit tricky, since some directors may not respond better to the short-format challenge and as a result ruin viewers’ interest. Helmed by three renowned humanist film-makers Ermanno Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami, and Ken Loach, ‘Tickets’ is blessed by the perfect unison of a humanist vision. Despite the differences in style and subject matter, there’s none of the uneven tone that plagues portmanteau films (Wild Tales is the best recent indication that portmanteau films aren’t wholly dead).

The project originated from the mind of Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami who suggested to his producers Carlo Crest-Dina and Babak Karimi about making three stories, linked by common themes. Kiarostami personally favored Olmi and Loach. Their mutual admiration of each other’s works initiated the project (first the idea was to make three segments of a documentary, but latter turned into a single, fictional feature). The three stories in the film are written in order (by Olmi, Kiarostami and Loach’s long-time screenwriter Paul Laverty), giving ample space for directors to build on the presented themes. The three stories are set in one train journey, from Central Europe to Rome. Although the characters in these different stories exist in their own isolated world, they form to be vital elements of a larger beautiful canvas.  

In director Olmi’s opening story, an elderly professor/scientist (Carlo Della Piane) reflects on the moments he just shared with the PR woman (Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi). The professor takes the woman’s friendly and charming nature and thinks of it as a possibility for romance. The memories of the past plus the idiosyncratic behaviors of the dining-car passengers interrupt the professor’s thoughts about the woman (kudos to gorgeous editing). He stops typing his business report on the laptop and opens a file to write a passionate letter for her. Olmi’s graceful direction gradually puts us in the perspective of the old man, riddled with hushed emotions. The professor also often takes a glimpse at a poor (Albanian) family, holding a crying baby, standing at the small space between the dining-car compartments. Since the professor’s romantic dreams are partly influenced by the images and sounds he hears around him, we wonder about the significance of this poor family at the compartment door-step. The director subtly plays with all these elements and weaves a kind of closure that’s nothing short of brilliant.

The middle story, directed by Kiarostami, revolves around a young man (Filippo Trojano) and a nagging old woman (Silvana De Santis). Their relationship isn’t very clear. They are traveling to Rome with second-class tickets, but occupy couple of reserved first-class tickets. The old woman’s demanding character nature is initially established with the verbal fight she has with another passenger. Filippo, who needs some breathing space, strikes up conversation with a smart 14 year old girl. The girl recognizes him since they are from the same town of Bracciano. Mr. Kiarostami extraordinarily makes use of first-person perspective (reminding us his 2002 film Ten) to dwell on the theme of detachment. It’s a very simple story with nothing dramatic, yet in the hands of Kiarostami, every gesture and dialogue looks compelling (also Kiarostami once again proves how language barrier isn’t a big thing for his humanist works).

The final section, directed by Ken Loach, is the most exuberant of the three. The characters are three Scottish young men & ardent Celtic supporters (Martin Compston, Gary Maitland, and William Ruane), traveling to Rome to see their team play in Champions League Final. They are just ordinary lads, working in a supermarket in Glasgow and must have rummaged through their savings to make this long trip. We are introduced to the characters through the typical but enjoyable brash talk (full of Glaswegian swear words). Their kindness is revealed as they share sandwiches with an Albanian boy. They chat with him and are delighted to know that the boy loves football. The Scottish trio give away sandwiches to the boy’s family (the same Albanian family we saw in the first story), comprised of a pretty elder sister, mother, grandmother, and the little baby. Mr. Loach earlier strikes off our preordained image about European football fans being prejudiced over the presence of immigrants. So, when they encounter a problem, which may or may not be caused by the Albanian family, it sets off a complex moral dilemma.

The film works largely due to the myriad ways the directors explore the profound thematic concerns. The themes examined ranged between class conflict, isolation, misconception, lack of communication, self-awakening, fear, memories, and human frailty. Yet, the directors don’t shove any particular themes on us through insipid dialogues. They let the themes unfurl in their own pace and style, and through their choice of characterizations. The result is a powerful and genuine study on the human condition. Moreover, the vibrant people in the three tales become microcosm of the dilemmas, agony, and pleasure we ourselves feel in a simple journey. The film is replete with small yet vital humane gestures. If our life is like a train journey, its beauty and importance lies in the showcase of love, empathy and sensitivity. A mere document of passage called ticket gives the characters a decision to make which may slightly transform their lives, or at least their preoccupations. The simple yet vital human gesture of the professor, the gentle conversation between Filippo and the teenager, the suspicions and sacrifices of the Celtic fans conveys a lot about our enduring humanity and the age we live in (marked by fear of terrorism, moral apathy, and alienation).

Often in portmanteau or anthology features, one tale would champion over others or falter so as to set up an erratic tone. It doesn’t happen with Tickets. Each tale is blessed with subtle directorial touches and naturalistic performances that it becomes hard to answer the question: which one’s the best? The first time I saw Tickets, I very much loved Ken Loach’s part, especially for its earthy and humorous tone (I was so elated by the final sequence). But after repeat viewings, I must confide that all the three tales are equally brilliant.

‘Tickets’ (109 minutes) is uniformly engaging and very rich in character as well as thematic details. These loosely inter-related tales may not be the greatest works of the three great auteurs. Nevertheless, this collective work on the ebb and flow of human connections is one of the very best portmanteau films ever made. 


Sweet Country [2018] – A Hard-Hitting, Socially Conscious Outback Western

Aboriginal Australian director & cinematographer Warwick Thornton’s subtle and unnerving directorial debut Samson and Delilah (2009) won the prestigious 'Camera d’Or' for best first feature film at the Cannes Film Festival. It was a fascinating study of the indigenous community, its identity, and the irreparable aftershock of colonization. Now his latest film Sweet Country (2018), a melancholic outback western, explores the fractured white-Australian national identity, the institutionalized racism, and the dehumanization plus disenfranchisement of the native populace. Sweet Country is also a remarkable character study, chronicling one oppressed man’s fight to survive in an unforgiving world. Director Thornton evokes the gorgeous visual tropes of classic Westerns, made by John Ford and Howard Hawks. But at the same time he eschews genre conventions and never shies away from pointing out how the Australian national identity evolved through the brutal appropriation of Aboriginal bodies, places, and culture. You could say that it’s an angry film, which enunciates the prejudice and violence that happens to have laid the foundations of modern Australia. But the rage is expressed in a nuanced manner, making it foremost ‘a good cinema’ and not just ‘a indigenous movie project’.

Based on a true story, this slice of Australian frontier history is set in its Northern territories in the late 1920s. The movie begins with a prolonged close-up shot of a boiling cauldron as we hear a fight breaking out between a white master and a black (aborigine) farmhand. It’s one of the many foreshadowing techniques Thornton employs to warn us of the inevitable brutality in this wilderness. Compassionate preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill) lends his Aboriginal stock-man Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) to the odd new neighbor Harry March (Ewen Leslie) to work on his cattle station. March is a PTSD-afflicted war veteran and an alcoholic with a vicious temper. Sam takes his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) and young niece to work on March’s farm. The bigoted March’s behavior instills unsavory experience for Sam and his wife.

On a neighboring farm lives Mick Kennedy (Thomas M Wright), yet another brute, who has a mixed-race son Philomac (played alternately by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan). Philomac defies his master every chance he gets and sets off a chain of events that leads Sam to gun down mad March in self-defense. Sam has a good understanding of what he would be subjected to for shooting a ‘white fella’ (even in self-defense). So he and Lizzie go on the run. Meanwhile, a hotheaded police Chief Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) leads a posse to hunt down Sam. The posse that chases after Sam comes across conflicts and soon the hunter-hunted dynamics undergoes a change. Nevertheless, Thornton never leaves us in doubt about Sam’s fate. Tolerance, justice, culpability, and empathy are far-fetched concepts in these weather-beaten lands, where human minds are poisoned by institutionalized racism.

 Screenwriters David Tranter and Steven McGregor’s depiction of Aboriginal characters doesn’t make them one-dimensional good people. On one hand soft-spoken Sam’s spiritual connection to the country is evoked. On the other hand, there are indigenous characters like Philomac and Archie (Gibson John) who aren’t helpless victims and are rather driven to do or say anything to save their own skin. This de-romanticized portrayal of Aboriginal characters is pivotal to understand the aftermaths of slavery and colonization, where there isn’t a simple preordained category of ‘innocent natives’ and ‘brutal whites’. Archie, the Uncle Tom-type, is particularly an interesting character whose utterly submissive nature invalidates our easy moralizations. While Thornton zeroes-in on Aboriginal’s fear and lack of faith in white-man’s system, he also doesn’t forget to showcase the mood of insecurity and unease in the minds of white settlers. The white men’s inner conflict was very well fleshed-out as much as the tribal native people. Mick initially comes across as a villain like Harry March. But in the end he looks like a pathetic guy, never feeling at home in this relentlessly harsh landscape. Even Sergeant Fletcher doesn’t withhold one-note villainy and his impulse to avoid vigilante justice is unexpected. Thornton often counters the white community’s bigotry by the rare yet vital expression of empathy. The compassionate judge delivers true justice in the form of a fair trail. Nevertheless, individualistic expression of empathy is swiftly over-turned by the establishment hell-bent on ostracism, which gradually strips away the native’s rights, lands and bodies.

Warwick Thornton makes good use of the flash-forwards pointing to the stark events that are waiting to hit us on a gut level. It would be ridiculous to say that these flash-forwards makes things predictable; as if we could expect anything different in a system built on hate and distrust. Similar to Lynn Ramsay’s recent riveting drama ‘You Were Never Really Here’, these fleeting shots showcase the never-ending trauma stitched throughout time and history. The harsh beauty of outback is something repeatedly mentioned from the days of Wake in Fright & Walkabout (both released in 1971). So, it’s no wonder that Thornton captures the landscape in all its glory. There are few interesting ironical glimpses at white-Australian identity. It’s overtly evident in the scene where people of the lawless town watch 1906 silent film ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’. They are enchanted and empowered by the violence of the famous criminal figure, but they want to hang a ‘black-fella’ [who also has Kelly in his name] for shooting in self-defense. The performances throughout the film are brilliant with Morris, Sam Neill and Brown adding extra layers to their characters. Morris and other Aboriginal characters are played by non-professional actors who lend a fine authenticity to the proceedings. Thornton takes a less-is-more approach with Morris whose calm presence imbues a strong tone of tenderness and dignity to the narrative. 

Sweet Country (113 minutes) is a nuanced discourse on the trauma and suffering experienced under colonialism and systemic persecution. The slow-burn design may frustrate some viewers, but this understated sociopolitical drama is visually stunning as well as deeply emotional.   


Journey’s End [2018] – A Harrowing First World War Drama Elevated by the Superb Cast


The Great War (World War I) is often overshadowed by World War II. What’s forgotten is not just the legacy and sacrifices of European soldiers, but also the struggles of multi-ethnic laborers and troops (from India, South East Asia, and Africa). Perhaps it is so because the Great War didn’t have a clearly drawn distinction between good and evil, compared to the easily detestable figures of Hitler and Mussolini in World War II. Or may be the death toll statistics (37 million + vs 56 million +) makes us highlight the squalor and inhumanity of one over the other. With four years of brutal trench warfare and use of deadly chemical warfare agent, the destruction and horror World War I brought upon human race was unprecedented. And from a cinematic perspective, the conflict of The Great War is harder to tackle or make it work in dramatic ways, although there have been numerous painstakingly detailed literature and personal accounts. R.C. Sheriff’s 1928 play Journey’s End is one of the classic works of WWI literature, which depicts the daily routines of a platoon of British Soldiers stationed on the horrendous Western Front as they wait for an impending German assault.

Sheriff’s play was well renowned in its time which was first performed in London with Laurence Olivier in the cast. A film version was also made by James Whale in 1930 (shortly before he made his classic work ‘Frankenstein’). Saul Dibb (The Duchess, Suite Francaise) has now brought it back to the big screen for the first time in nearly 90 years. Furthermore it’s a well-crafted adaption that (working from a script by Simon Reade), if not a masterpiece, at least deserves a place in the list of hard-hitting movies tackling the subject of trench warfare. Starting from Abel Gance’s ‘I Accuse’ (1919; which he remade it in 1938), Lewis Milestone’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930) to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957) and Peter Weir’s ‘Gallipoli’ (1981), the cinematic trenches and dugouts have powerfully told the tales of suffering and undying human spirit. Although it’s been nearly a centennial since the events depicted in Journey’s End occurred, the wounds not simmering and raw, its immersive vision of young and old generations of men caught in the purgatorial landscape deeply conveys the human costs of war, unlike any informational type videos and detailed wikipedia articles.

Journey’s End follows soldiers preparing for battle. It’s a study of their pervasive sense of dread that always soaring in the claustrophobic, rat-infested hell-hole. The narrative focuses on imparting a lived-in experience to the viewers rather than displaying the thrill of battle. It’s very low on bloodletting and there are no images of mutilated, limbless bodies. The sheer unpleasantness confronted in Journey’s End is purely psychological. It’s a compilation of deeply felt exchanges between men who know they are going to die soon; not simply die, but eviscerated by machine guns and shells. That could have been easily turned into a cliché, or the script simply may have failed to elevate the material from its theatrical roots to cinematic medium. But thanks to the tremendous casting and performances, the film rarely seems stagey or boxed-in.

Journey’s End opens few days before what would be later known as ‘Spring Offensive’, the last push by the German to emerge victorious, which of course failed and cost the lives of 800,000 men on both sides. In March 1918, the members of C Company, led by young Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), marched into a muddy trench, somewhere in Northern France. They are to wait there for six days, and if no German offensive takes place another Company would take their place. But the intelligence says the enemy's advance is coming very soon. The handsome but broken Stanhope had been tirelessly working from the beginning of war to protect his men and represses his PTSD symptoms with whisky. He flies into rage over every little thing. However, Stanhope is often assuaged by the presence of his second-in-command, Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), a former schoolteacher, who maintains his grace even amidst the squalidness and terror. The men belovedly address him as ‘Uncle’.

Fresh-faced officer James Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) who is eager to get into the action gets himself assigned to the C Company. He is also friends with Stanhope, whose sweetheart is Raleigh’s elder sister. He is dashing and wants to savor the ‘spectacle’ of battlefield. But he is harshly brought back to earth after witnessing Stanhope’s gradual mental breakdown. Stanhope largely ignores Raleigh, fearing that Raleigh’s sister will know about his sorry state. Rounding up this company’s officer crew are the cheery and resolute Trotter (Stephan Graham) and shell-shocked, mentally-afflicted Hibbert (Tom Sturridge). Another pivotal member occupying the officer quarters in the trenches is docile cook Mason (Toby Jones). The deadline of German attack is fast dwindling. And these soldiers like cancer-ridden patients at a hospice wait for the inevitable; some with a steely nerve and some with a barely concealed rage.

Journey’s End is easily director Saul Dibb’s career best work and far great than his previous cloying war drama 'Suite Francaise' (2014). Raede’s impressive script and Dibb’s visual acuity never makes the action feel stagy, although it mostly takes place inside a single setting. The eventual daylight raid in the play allows Raede to sharply illustrate the nonchalance of the officer class members of the army. When the old Patrician General asks Captain Stanhope to finish the raid before it gets dark and says he wants the results before in time for dinner, the fury kindled within us doesn’t associate wickedness only with the 'foreign' enemy. Even though Sheriff’s play doesn’t include a prominent private soldier character, the whole atmosphere of paranoia and anxiety sadly notes the imminent senseless slaughter of the common soldiers (not just British; even the captured German private remains antsy). Films like Hacksaw Ridge (2016), in attempting to portray the senseless deaths in the battlefield somehow turned the same into a spectacle (with its video-game violence). But Journey’s End purely conveys the psychological unrest of wandering through the mud-squelching trenches. The de-saturated exterior color palette, the gorgeous candle-lit interiors, and the good use of shallow focus close-ups by Dibb and cinematographer Laurie Rose (Ben Wheatley’s regular DP) perfectly embodies the hopelessness of war and the unnerving emotions it brings to surface (also aided by Natalie Holt’s unsettling orchestral score).

There are few stretches in the movie that may feel a bit of a drag for a casual viewer, but for those interested in World War I history (like me) it feels captivating right to the end. There might be nothing surprising in the narrative, and the frustration, pain, and madness of war may have been more supremely depicted in other works of cinematic masters. Yet it’s outstanding cast, and earnest efforts to avoid sentimentality makes Journey’s End one of the profound war-experience cinema in recent times. Stanhope is probably Sam Claflin’s best role. Look out for the scene, where he sends his men to their deaths, his eyes showcase a gamut of emotions within few minutes. To Claflin’s credit, there’s not a tinge of melodrama in his characters’ downward spiral. Paul Bettany’s Osborne is the gently swaying candlelight flame to Stanhope’s forest-fire-like rage. It’s nothing short of heartbreaking to watch Bettany calmly preparing for the worse, while retaining his amicable nature even in the face of futility. The duo genuinely wrings out tears from our eyes, not just for their characters, but also for the countless men who were really thrown to their deaths by the posh officers. Eventually, Journey’s End (107 minutes) isn’t just a dense catalog of battlefront horrors. It also pays tribute to the strength and endurance of human spirit, which naturally outlasts the despicably archaic worldview of apathetic Generals. Altogether, it’s a topnotch war drama sans grandiose spectacle. 


Tehran Taboo [2017] – The Heinous Secrets of a Morally Rigid Society

Iranian born German film-maker Ali Soozandeh’s Tehran Taboo (2017) offers a searing, eye-opening portrait of Iran’s police state. Considering the subject matter and censorship in place, the movie couldn’t be naturally shot in the streets of Tehran. Hence, Mr. Ali has chosen the medium of animation, creating the bustling capital city through computer imagery and further bestowing a realistic dimension by rotoscope style animation (live-action image of real actors, shot against a green screen, are placed inside the animated layers; Richard Linklater used it artfully in Waking Life & A Scanner Darkly). Rotoscoping drives the aesthetics towards realism without entirely losing its dreamy effect. Moreover, this technique perfectly works since the live-action footage would remain too blunt for the shocking material. 

Tehran Taboo takes a dip into the ugly innards of Iran’s capital city, unveiling the hypocrisy and debauchery thriving under the mask of religious strictness and sexual morality. It’s a triptych of interconnected stories, presenting the deeply corrupted hidden face of the society, from the perspective of three women. The plot-line might remind us of Jafar Panahi’s The Circle (2000) which showcased the plight of different women in an extremely oppressive sexist Iranian society. Nevertheless, Ali Soozandeh unlike the Iran-based film-makers talks about the taboos directly and delineates the sexual restrictions through the astutely staged scenarios. The movie opens with a woman performing an oral sex on a cabbie driving his car (after accepting cash), while the woman’s young mute son is impassively sitting in the backseat. When the cabbie notices his daughter walking down the street, holding a young man’s hand he rages and crashes his taxi. This hard-hitting tone practically sets the tone for the rest of the narrative.

Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh) has to take care of her mute little boy Elias (Bilal Yasar) as her husband is imprisoned on drug charges. He is sentenced to life, but refuses to divorce her or provide signed document that may allow her to take a job or enroll her son in a school. Pari approaches a judge of the Islamic Revolutionary Court. The judge in turn offers a simple proposition: to be his kept woman, in exchange for living in a new upscale apartment. For groceries and other costs, she could service her other clients. Despite the terrible situation, Pari remains undeterred and does whatever it takes for the well-being of her son. Sara (Zarhra Amir Ebrahimi), Pari’s new neighbor, is a pregnant woman married to a banker. Her desire is to work. But her husband is reluctant to sign the document that would give her the permission. Therefore, Sara is pinned down to do the household duties and take care of her pestering in-laws. Struggling musician and student Babak (Arash Marandi) also lives in the same housing block, who makes love to a young woman named Donya (Negar Mona Alizadeh) in the nightclub toilet after taking few drinks and drugs. She calls him the next day and informs that he has deflowered her, and if her fiance finds out he would murder them both. Babak promises to pay Donya for the hymen-reconstruction surgery (an underground business) and now forced to make some quick money. Percolating the lives of these four connected characters are the fury-inducing double standards of the morally rigid Iranian society.

Director Soozandeh’s critique of the dark, hidden world resulting from Iran’s cultural policies suffers a bit from overwrought plotting (especially in the final act). But the film’s technical accomplishment with its poetic interludes is nothing short of astounding. It’s a great testament to the medium’s ability and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht’s sharp compositions that the computer-generated Tehran itself feels like a character, popping to life with colorful hues. The movie is at its best when it goes for visual poetics, not particularly concerned with the plot trajectory. Soozandeh’s focus lingers on intriguing specific details: like Elias using his mother’s condom as water balloon and dropping it out of balcony for fun; burger ads in the radio; the litter of kittens concealed within the narrow spaces of the high-rise; the recurrent shots of flying birds foreboding the sad and heart-breaking denouement; scenes set inside a photo studio, where all the four characters get their portrait taken as a off-the-screen photographer blandly asks about the occasion for the photograph (single viewing isn’t enough to comprehend the meaning of some of the tangled metaphors). The director is also fascinated with balconies as if it’s the only private space far removed from the prying looks of the oppressive theocratic society.

Although the narrative is bleak and tragic, there are certain comic overtones, especially with Babak’s attempt to restore Donya’s virginity. There’s a kind of absurdist humor in the manner Pari takes up the sleazy judge’s offer (and also when two women talk about men in a balcony over a dirty martini). In fact, the farcical wit and slightly softening effect of rotoscoping gracefully melds the harsher aspects of the story-line. Soozandeh largely doesn’t intend to make heroes or martyrs out of his women characters. They are rather shown as flawed individuals, possessing all the understandable human desires, but traumatized by an uncaring system. At the same time, Soozandeh doesn’t take pains to humanize the elderly male characters (all of them come across as villains). The black-mailing janitor, Sara’s father in-law who watches porn and swiftly switches to religious speech once a family member walks into the room, the deviant judge are all used to personify the previous old generation in a unpleasant manner, questioning them for succumbing to religious fundamentalism. Such characterizations allow the narrative to belabor its view so as to make it teeter towards one-dimensional melodrama. But for all those minor flaws, Tehran Taboo (95 minutes) deftly focuses on the morbid realities of civilian life in a society where hypocrisy, fear, and repressive paradoxical laws reign.