Orlando [1992] – A Whimsical Art-House Drama on Gender Politics

Based on Virginia Woolf’s novella, Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) is a challenging as well as a slightly frustrating art-house drama. At a glance, it looks like a Merchant Ivory production or like one of those (unimaginative) costume dramas. But this aesthetically-pleasing tale of androgynous British nobleman’s fantastical exploits playfully explores the themes of gender outlooks and personal identity. Having read Virginia Woolf (although I haven’t read Orlando), it is understandable what an arduous task it might have been to adapt the intricate text into a movie. Set across four centuries of British history, the ageless gender-switching protagonist’s emotional journey doesn’t have a conventional narrative arc. Yet Sally Potter’s prodigious visual achievement alongside Tilda Swinton’s intoxicating presence strengthens the free-wheeling plot structure.

Tilda Swinton and Sally Potter have started collaborating on this project five years before it went to production. It’s pretty evident how their long involvement have impeccably nurtured the ideas to come up with best possible devices. Virginia Woolf published the novella in 1928 and is alleged to have used Orlando merely as a conduit to playfully address her bewilderment over gender perceptions and restrictions over different eras and centuries. To align with Woolf’s idea, the script takes a slightly detached perspective, moving between one vignette to another (each situation’s theme is explicitly addressed in inter-titles: eg, death, love, sex, etc), and using it as a canvas for its thematic inquiries. 

The rascally central conceit of Orlando may lack the strong emotional resonance of other felicitated self-discovery journeys, although it makes up for this through the remarkably rich and memorable camerawork. Potter’s elegant camera movement and Swinton’s serenely composed bemusement carries the feeling of whimsy and dry humor oft found in Woolf’s works.

Tilda Swinton’s titular Orlando is a dashing nobleman, born into wealth and privilege. In 1600, the young man has a fateful meeting with elderly Queen Elizabeth (Quentin Crisp). The Queen promises him great deal of wealth and land, provided if he doesn’t ‘grow old and wither’. Orlando decides to do just that: to progress through centuries without ageing. In 1610, Orlando lives in a huge estate and captivated by the arrival of an enchanting Muscovite Princess named Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey). The arrival of Russian diplomats is set in the marvelous background of frozen Thames (with waiters delivering drinks by skating on ice). In the pursuit of love, he lets down his betrothed fiancee, and later Orlando himself is rebuffed by Sasha. Arriving at a conclusion that women are beyond trust and comprehension, Orlando tries to be a poet and fails.

In the late 17th century, he is appointed as an Ambassador for Middle-East country and eventually fumbles in the diplomatic test. Soon Orlando transforms into a woman. Gazing upon his now transformed female body, he says with a note of amazement, Same person. No difference at all…. Just a different sex”. Orland’s spiritual calmness persists as she lives in the puritanical British society where intellectuals spout ridiculous claims on the nature of ‘fairer sex’. Orlando’s properties are threatened since as a woman she has no rights to inherit property. However, she rediscovers love and sex through an American drifter Shelmerdine (Billy Zane). The film ends in the timeline, well past the novella’s period. Orlando is seen cruising on a motorbike with her little daughter in 1990s Britain, excited by the new-age freedom and the ever-changing gender precepts.

Sally Potter’s script does find it difficult to maintain cohesiveness with the breakaway narrative. The laborious task of moving through time and space is not as easy in terms of visuals as compared to richly adorned prose. But as I mentioned earlier, Potter’s aesthetic maneuvers finely conveys Woolf’s treatise on shifting gender roles. The scene between Shelmerdine and Orlando, where the lovers discuss about their desires which stands against social expectations of gendered beings, is brilliantly shot savoring the dry wit and richness in the conversation. The occasional fourth-wall breaking moments may seem silly, but it arrays rightly with acutely self-conscious nature of Virginia Woolf and her central characters. Moreover, the devilish close-up shots of Tilda Swinton’s face as she faces the camera (or us) keep alive the feelings of gaiety in the narrative.

 It’s simply unimaginable how Orlando’s solitary stretch and existentialist muses would have played out on-screen without Tilda Swinton donning the role. It’s debatable whether Swinton was very convincing as a male, but there’s an equanimity and soulfulness in her composure that can’t be as fully realized by another actor. Despite the narrative framework maintaining a distance from its characters, Swinton brings up emotional transparency with greatest skill (her sad posture when she answers the question, ‘Why are you so sad?’ balancingly conveys inherent joy of newfound passion and the lament for its inevitable loss). Considering the narrative’s offbeat flourishes, the performances could have easily turned into caricatured portrayal rather than providing some emotional anchor. Both the excellent supporting cast and Swinton doesn’t do that mistake. The production and costume design immediately conjures the word ‘sumptuous’ from our mind (the film received two well-deserved Oscar nominations in these categories).

Orlando (93 minutes) is an unconventional century-spanning drama that must be watched for clear-eyed directorial gaze and Tilda Swinton’s distinctive screen presence. Despite few clumsy or disjointed narrative missteps, this is an audacious adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s text on preconceived gender expectations.  

Unbelievable [2019] – A Devastating and Powerful Tale about Sexual Assault

The first episode of Netflix’s 8-part miniseries Unbelievable (2019) – created by screenwriter Susannah Grant & novelists Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman -- is profoundly disturbing. It confirms all of our worst fears about institutional incompetence and societal indifference. Unbelievable is based on a 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning article ("An Unbelievable Story of Rape"), which was the joint project of T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, respectively working for the non-profit news organizations, ProPublica and The Marshall Report. The article details the investigation on string of multiple sexual assaults while also focusing on a sexual assault victim’s nightmarish encounter with the very imperfect criminal justice system. Like every other perplexing true-crime case presented in the streaming platform, Unbelievable is meticulous, excruciating, and enraging with some dramatizations.

As I mentioned before, the 1st episode firmly establishes all the unsettling aspects of the story, although the director Lisa Cholodenko’s admirable display of restraint visualizes the trauma of sexual assault victims with minimal details. The episode opens the morning after Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) from Lynnwood, Washington was raped in 2008. The visibly traumatized 18-year-old, huddled under a comforter, notices her former foster mother Judith’s (Elizabeth Marvel) attempts to soothe her. When Marie is questioned by a detective, the trauma of previous night keeps hitting her in bits and pieces. Around 4 a.m., Marie wakes up to see a tall man in a grey sweater and mask standing next to her bed, threatening her with a knife. He ties her up with her own shoe laces. After raping her for hours, he takes pictures with a camera and says that if she reports the incident to police he’d release the photo online.

Marie decides to report the attack anyway. And more violations await her. Marie grew up in foster care and she’s familiar of abuse from childhood. She’s made to re-live the worst experience of her life through the rigorous questioning that forces her to reiterate the story of her assault again and again. But when Marie’s former foster mother raises doubts on Marie’s ‘reaction’ to the rape and attention-seeking behavior, the lead detective (Eric Lange) and everyone who’s supposed to help her get through the trauma exacerbate the situation. The two male detectives finding inconsistencies in Marie’s account hound her to recant everything. She also retracts her retraction, but the detectives intimidate Marie with false report charges. Eventually, Marie is charged with filing a false report.

While Marie Adler’s story shows how few human elements and institutional apathy can make a mess out of things, there’s other side to Unbelievable; the rare story of dogged individuals who try to impose justice on a world full of shortcomings and disappointment. The series is split into two time-lines, one showcasing the fallout of botched up investigation in Marie’s case, and the other immerses us into the compelling investigation of two detectives pursuing a serial rapist. In 2011, Colorado Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) investigates the rape of a student named Amber (Danielle MacDonald). Karen questions the woman without forgetting to pay close attention to the woman’s emotional state. She’s professional, sensitive, and thoroughly invests herself into the case.

A random conversation with her detective husband offers Karen information about an eerily similar, unresolved rape case. Karen contacts Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), a smart and cynical detective in charge of a rape case involving a middle-aged woman. The similarities in their case (a man in a mask carrying a back pack and leaving a spotless crime scene) make the detectives to dig for more such cases.  And unsurprisingly, they stumble upon few other unresolved rape cases in different districts of Colorado. Since Karen and Grace connected their case through pure luck (police departments even within a district rarely communicate), they feel the suspect might be from a military background and possibly working in law enforcement (the meticulously cleaned crime scenes also makes them pursue this angle). Furthermore, the partnership between the two temperamentally different female detectives proves to the most valuable aspect of the investigation.

Unbelievable draws a lot from the contrast between two timelines and eventually shows how in a world that’s decidedly unfair and where people do all sorts of awful things to each other, a great difference can really be made through compassion and competence. The robust current of hope running throughout Karen and Grace’s story-line displaces some of the bitter aftertaste left by Marie’s damaged existence. Both the creators and directors do a good job in maintaining the tension and suspense necessary for a procedural. Most importantly, the creative team avoids depicting sexual assault in an exploitative manner. They rather opt to deftly explore the aftermath of the traumatic event.

Apart from gradually building the profile of the serial rapist, the writers have done a fine job in establishing the tenacious heroic pair at the center, who show up to the male-dominated law enforcement system about the sensitive and fair ways the crimes of sexual nature involving female victims could be handled. The brilliant on-screen chemistry between Wever and Colette also adds to the entrancing qualities of the characters. The writing is particularly excellent when Detective Parker understands the ways he ill-treated the insecure girl. He isn’t made out to be a villain. He is simply part of an imperfect system impacted by a hardwired belief (of looking at those reporting sexual assault with mild skepticism). And there’s glimmer of hope in the manner he acknowledges his mistake and might ‘do better’ the next time.

Like the real investigation and the source material that inspired the series, Unbelievable is thought-provoking and infuriating. Yet some of the narrative elements are overly dramatized and the dialogues at times come across a touch contrived. Moreover, the attempt for a cathartic ending feels a bit formulaic. Nevertheless, it is genuinely affecting to see a sexual assault survivor receiving justice despite all the burdens the judicial system and society places upon her. Overall, Unbelievable is a gripping and unnerving true-crime mini-series, blessed with humane storytelling and incredible performances. 


Baby Face [1933] – The Rise of a Femme Fatale

One of the flaws that contribute to black-and-white American movies’ outdated nature is its tenuous character sketches of the central players: women remain chaste, obedient, and wholesome; men are gentle, strong-headed, and achievers. But the black-and-white movies in the classic Hollywood era haven’t always relied on gender stereotypes. While there has been numerous film-makers who have campaigned against strict American censors, there was also daring film-makers who thrived before censorship guidelines was set forth in mid 1930s. Pre-Code Hollywood era brought upon few strong female characters who didn’t mask their sexuality or succumb to the masculine power. The array of allegedly nefarious depictions in this era’s movie contained infidelity, harsh violence, promiscuity, reference to prostitution and other sexual innuendos. Gangster films like The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), Scarface (1932) delineated the massacres initiated by protagonist characters rather than showcase their violence as cathartic. Drama & comedies like Red-Headed Woman (1932), The Divorcee (1930), Gold Diggers of 1933, etc possessed strong female characters that fought against powers-that-be. The anarchic and unpredictable behavior on-screen unnerved the state censors, but the ticket sales only skyrocketed. The Pre-Code era mostly refers to the period between the introduction of sound pictures and strict censorship rules, shaped in 1934, popularly known as ‘Hays Code’ (it was terminated in 1968). Political and religious factions came together by the end of 1933 to bring down American cinema’s ‘immorality’ which they thought promoted bad behavior. The big studios naturally succumbed to these external pressures.

Film critics and scholars often cite Baby Face (1933) as one of the significant and controversial movies of pre-code era. It’s considered to be the last straw that propelled the higher powers to bring about censorship rules. When the Hays Code went into effect, Baby Face was pulled from the theaters and heavily censored. Set in the late 1920s with Prohibition era still in effect, Baby Face tells the story of a young woman who literally sleeps her way to the top. Even by today’s standards, the raw sexual power emitted by the great Barbara Stanwyck retains its boldness and cool efficiency. The film opens in a dead-end industrial American small-town where Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) serve drink to workers in her wily father’s illegal joint. The way the workers paw her as she walks past them suggests how the father lends her for gaining ‘favors’. The only persons who don’t see Lily as mere sexual object are: Chico (Theresa Harris), African-American housemaid; and an old, intellectual cobbler Mr. Cragg (Alphonse Ethier) who encourages Lily to live as per the words of celebrated philosopher Frederick Nietzsche. Since it’s the local politician who helps Lily’s father to keep the bar open, he asks for his prize. Lily doesn’t relent and even breaks a bottle on his head. She confronts her father and says she is tired of giving herself to men (ever since she was 14 years old). This line of dialogue alongside the professor’s incendiary advice: Nietzsche says, “All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation”. Exploit yourself. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities. Use men! Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get the things you want! makes up for some of the boldest statement made in black-and-white Hollywood cinema.

Lily’s fate changes when her father dies in an accident. She travels to Manhattan with Chico and sets her sights on Gotham Trust Bank. Starting from the position of under secretary, the shrewd Lily uses her radiant beauty to seduce men and climb up the social ladder. Twenty-five year old John Wayne plays a minor role as Jimmy McCoy, the lowly positioned young man whom Lily dumps after her inescapable gaze falls upon his boss Brody. The future all-American film star looks docile in front of the assured heroine here. Lily spends her free time reading etiquette, distances herself from female co-workers, and wears the flawless mask of purity and innocence in the men’s presence. Her effortless rise through the ranks is funnily portrayed by panning up the camera outside the bank building – from Personnel to the top most Accounting Department. Even when her actions bring upon tragedy on others, Lily doesn’t question her methods, up until meeting Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), the playboy who takes over the bank’s Presidential position. It all leads to an interesting climax where Lily isn’t punished in the familiar way as employed by most of the 40s Noir movies.

In 2004, a curator in Library of Congress stumbled upon the original print of Baby Face that’s five minutes longer than the widely circulated version (in the edited version the radical nature of cobbler’s words were also altered). The shots of men’s lusty gaze on Lily plus the risque scenes where Lily openly invites men for sex were cut out. The censored version was instilled with a false sense of morality which dilutes the complexity of Lily’s characterization. Directed by Alfred E. Green and story written by Darryl F. Zanuck (couple of years later he founded the famous studio 20th Century Fox), the movie resorts to clever sexual innuendos and subtle visual cues to delineate its alleged proto-feminist message.

The writing exhibits admiration for Lily’s exploits as well as nudges at the utter emptiness of her pursuit of material wealth. Lily has all the characteristics of Hollywood’s archetypal ‘ice queen’, popularly dubbed as the ‘femme fatale’. The character type, well circularized in Noir cinema, was shown to be as strong-headed women who had the sheer force of will to decimate male-dominated universe. However, often in Hays Code Hollywood cinema femme fatales are eventually punished with death, their beauty equated as instrument of chaos. In Baby Face, the femme fatale protagonist is more empathized and stops just short of brutally punishing her with a lame ending. The film isn’t without flaws as there are problems with some caricatured representations of both genders and with slightly misleading interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Yet, the film’s visceral power, boosted by Barbara Stanwyck’s majestic performance couldn’t be ignored. She is much enigmatic and alluring than she was in her much acclaimed role of Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Stanwyck effortlessly envisions her characters' emotional damage that’s reflected in the escalating actions of ruthlessness.

Baby Face (76 minutes) is a profoundly dark and racy melodrama that’s now perceived as significant artifact of Depression era & Pre-Code Hollywood. The naughty sexual implications plus Stanwyck’s performance still holds the punch to engross modern cinephiles.  


The Women’s Balcony [2016] – A Charming Tale of Religious Discord and Female Empowerment

When religion rejects pluralism and kowtows to predefined set of rules, allowing no space for discussion, then the ensuing orthodox establishment tends to weave rigorous control over its followers, and pits one against the other. Normally, the word religious extremism brings to mind ISIS soldiers, cloaked in black and carrying a black flag parading the streets of some long-forgotten, bombed-out Middle-East country. But religious extremism or stern orthodox beliefs are confronted at all levels of community, regardless of the country’s overt peaceful status. Israeli film-maker Emil Ben-Shimon’s The Women’s Balcony (Ismach Hatani, 2016) deals with onset of religious extremism within a serene Israeli, working-class community, where the moderate number of congregants go to their synagogue with an air of jubilation and festivity, rather out of fear.  The film opens on a narrow street with a well-dressed young woman coming out of a house, carrying a dish container. Soon, we see group of men and women joining her, and they move rapidly through the narrow, stone-paved alleys, bearing infectious excitement before reaching their small synagogue.

The Women’s Balcony was written by first-time screen-writer Shlomit Nehama who says she grew up in a similar religious yet buoyant community. She effortlessly imbues an authenticity to the characters and their conversations flow naturally. Particularly, the female characters are written in an impassioned, believable manner that’s reminiscent of Pedro Almodovar and Nadine Labaki’s films. The chief characters of the narrative are: Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), a religious but independent middle-aged woman; and her loving husband Zion (Igal Naor), an active member of the small community. The joyous gathering at the synagogue is for Zion & Ettie’s grandson’s bar mitzvah (Jewish coming of age ritual). The women in their formal attires elatedly watch the ritual from their section, a balcony. Elderly Rabbi, Menashe (Abraham Celektar) conducts the proceedings in an easygoing manner. The turmoil then begins through visible structural damage. The women’s beloved balcony caves-in and the accident puts Rabbi’s wife in a coma.

The old rabbi is in shock and the men of the congregation move to a temporary place, although the new setting makes it difficult for them to bring at least 10 men to fulfill their worship (a quorum of ten Jewish adults are required for performing religious service, known as ‘minyan’). But one charismatic, smooth-talking young Rabbi, David (Aviv Alush) brings his loyal students and takes charge of the prayers. The four men of the tight-knit community, including Zion, confess their misfortune to Rabbi David. They show him the collapsed temple, and David promises to help them rebuild it. The men easily fall for the young Rabbi’s courteous sermons. Although the Rabbi doesn’t deliver firebrand speech, he slowly and surely injects his extreme orthodox beliefs. He ‘soulfully’ explains why it’s an honor for women to keep them a little out of sight, covering their head with scarves. When Zion buys a scarf as present for Ettie, she vehemently protests. Furthermore, adding to the women’s growing frustration is that the rebuilt synagogue doesn’t have a balcony. An adjoining, claustrophobic space in the back is assigned for them. More alarming is how the new Rabbi’s cascading idea wedges rift between the people’s unity. Hence, the women decide that it’s time to rebel.

The Women’s Balcony was a biggest hit at Israeli box-office which is understandable. It’s interesting to see how a country that thrives in different areas of technological industries also has this dilemma over women’s place in its religious lifestyle. Of course, this isn’t a political movie, but only a light-hearted dramedy. Yet, the narrative offers brilliant insights on the aforementioned dilemma without demeaning or angelicizing the characters. Even though the specificity of the rituals may baffle those not familiar with Judaism, gradually we could see universality in the character’s dynamics and concerns. We could easily feel the agony of these once-happy congregants reduced to wretched state and also their sharp anger on the annoying Rabbi, spouting out-dated religious rhetoric. Moreover, thanks to Shlomit Nehama’s well-attuned script, the narrative expertly focuses on each characters’ worries and foibles, extracting humor and poignancy in equal measures. The story line has all the ingredients to devolve into preachy drama, but each narrative moment is well-grounded in genuine human emotions.

Ben-Shimon perfectly juggles between the tones, avoiding the use of stereotypical behavior for the sake of few more laughs. He also uses the real Jerusalem locations with ingenuity, setting the character relationships and exploring the themes through carefully calibrated atmosphere (for example, Zion and Ettie are early framed closely by doorway or window, but with young Rabbi’s arrival this changes, but at the end we once again see the couple snuggling at the doorway). The performances from the large ensemble cast were nothing short of amazing. Although Evelin Hagoel’s turn as introspective & determined Ettie wholly attracts our attention, Aviv Alush as hate-inducing David was equally good. His minimalistic style of acting never transforms the character into a cardboard villain. May be, we could find some fault with the pat and very predictable ending. But it’s hard to be not overwhelmed by the movie, which takes a very complex theme and produces an entertaining fare with rich, memorable characterizations. 

Altogether, The Women’s Balcony (96 minutes) is a heartfelt & feel-good story of a vibrant community’s reawakening. 



A Good Wife [2016] – The Maladies and Doubts of a Middle-Aged Woman

A Good Wife (‘Dobra Zena’, 2016) marks the directorial debut of Serbian star Mirjana Karanovic who was best known for her roles in Emir Kusturica’s films (‘When My Father Was Away on Business’, ‘Underground’, ‘Life is a Miracle’) and for playing the central character in Jasmila Zbanic’s ‘Grbavica’ (2006). Karanovic also brilliantly plays the titular role in A Good Wife, a docile 50-year-old matriarch named Milena. Karanovic’s Milena is a mother of three, comfortably living under the care of her husband Vlada, (Boris Isakovic), a well-to-do contractor. She spends her day cleaning their Belgrade suburban house, taking care of college-going son Milos (Jovan Belobrkovic) and high school-going daughter Katarina (Isidora Simijonovic), and enjoys the occasional gathering with her husband’s war buddies and their life partners. Milena’s quotidian yet peaceful life is ruptured when she’s diagnosed with breast cancer (beautifully touched upon in the opening scene as she wistfully sits in front of a mirror, topless and examines her breasts). But soon a much bigger conflict overwhelms Milena. While undertaking the usual spring clean of the house, she stumbles upon her husband’s military uniform and a VHS tape, which contains more than the old footage of their family’s joyous gathering.

Apart from acting and directing, Mirjana Karanovic has also co-wrote the script with Stevan Filipovic and Darko Lungulov (Filipovic has directed Karanovic in 2015 dramedy ‘Next to Me’, whereas Lungulov has directed the actress in 2009 drama ‘Here and There’). The trio has written it as an intense character study rather than a thriller. The ‘cancer’ metaphor is especially employed in a sensible way without mining it for melodrama. Earlier in the narrative, Vlada seems unsettled by the news debate, where an activist remarks that former Serbian soldiers should be extradited and charged for war crimes in the Hague Tribunal. In the VHS tape, Milena discovers Vlada, in full paramilitary attire, and his buddies brutally executing civilians in the Yugoslav Wars (1991 – 2001). Milena passively watches the views of talking heads in the news, but she is visibly distressed by her husband’s war activities, so much that she doesn’t watch the video fully.

Natasha (Hristina Popovic), Milena and Vlada’s independent, art-loving eldest daughter deepens the good wife’s inner conflict. Natasha has stopped talking with her father because of her works with Belgrade human rights organization and for looking beyond the rosy glow of their nation’s war history. On one hand, Milena’s growing closeness with Natasha makes her to question Vlada’s inhumane acts, in the name of war. At the same time, being aware and taking action pushes Milena into panic because it would bring unprecedented transformations to their lives. Should Milena be the proverbial ‘good wife’ and endure, preserve husband’s dirty secrets? Or should she do the ‘right’ thing and in due course ruin their family unit? It’s fascinating to see how Karanovic and her co-writers find parallels between the personal and societal cancer that’s disturbing Milena’s composure. The doctor after suggesting immediate surgery says, “We'll do reconstruction, everything will look the same”. We know the ‘reconstruction’ following the cleansing of ‘cancers’ aren’t going to be the same.

The symbols conjured may seem a bit convenient and unsubtle, but Karanovic’s performance and direction perfectly infuses the emotional beats. The slow shift in Milena’s emotionality is gracefully suggested. Karanovic builds the narrative out of interesting, little moments: the naturalistic chatter between mom and daughter; through awkward, non-erotic sexual encounters between Milena and Vlada; the calm sequence when Milena wakes up early in her house, takes the car to do what she feels right. In one memorable scene, Milena serves snacks to her husband, daughter, son and their friends who are deeply involved in discussing politics, education, etc. Milena, no longer wanting to remain passive, says something sensible but in a little harsh tone. The others are baffled, not by what she said or by the tone she assumed; it’s due to the fact that this acquiescent woman has opened her mouth to voice out an opinion. And Karanovic is uniformly phenomenal in playing the dutiful wife troubled by her conscience (as stunning as she was in ‘Grbavica’). Her towering presence smooths out the little rough edges that are evident with Karanovic the film-maker. 

Overall, A Good Wife (90 minutes) is a straightforward yet endearing tale of motherhood, post-war society, truth, and reconciliation embellished by good writing and impressive ensemble cast. 


Styx [2019] – A Low-Key & Thought-Provoking High-Seas Adventure

Wolfgang Fischer’s minimalist and unnerving drama, Styx (2019) opens with the image of apes roaming the parking lots and buildings of a place that’s revealed to be Gibraltar, an impeccably urbanized artificial island in the Mediterranean sea (a British Overseas Territory). Despite the paradisaical views of the island, there’s an eerie strangeness in seeing these apes not in their natural environment. From the apes, director Fischer cuts to a traffic accident, the injured motorist treated by an emergency medic in the ambulance. This emergency doctor named Rike (a robust Susanne Wolff) happens to be the film’s protagonist, who forced to face death on a daily basis decides to go on a solo, recuperative voyage in her well-equipped yacht. Her destination is Ascension Island, a volcanic island in the Atlantic Ocean, where Charles Darwin designed an artificial green ecosystem. As Rike seeks solace from human-engineered urban ‘paradise’ by fixing her sights on a human-engineered jungle ‘paradise’, trouble and distress comes her way, which pits Darwinian theme of ‘survival of the fittest’ against human compassion.

The documentary-like, dialogue-free narrative of Styx’s first-half could frustrate us. We see Rike filling her boat with supplies (abundant for a solo trek), effortlessly handling the yacht while keeping her cool throughout a fierce storm. The careful planning, ability to thrive in tough environments, and the high-end gadgets Rike surrounds herself with insinuates she could handle whatever comes her way. But what she confronts is utterly unexpected: dozens of emaciated refugees in a sinking, overloaded fishing trawler wailing for their rescue. With a yacht too small to help them and with a boat full of distressed people jumping into ocean to swim towards the yacht, the narrative turns into a morality play. The (friendly) Coast Guards, who speak English in different accents, repeatedly instruct Rike to keep her distance. But silence is the only answer they could offer when she asks when help will arrive.  

Among the group of migrants who swim towards Rike, only a boy (Gedion Wekesa Odour) boards her yacht. Being an emergency worker, she swiftly attends to the sick boy. And although Rike keeps her distance from the sinking ship, a growing sense of guilt gnaws at her. Moreover, when the boy convalesces she increasingly gets in conflict with him; he insists her to rescue his family members. Since the systems in place are utterly slow to act, can a single person make a difference? Or does her presence actually make matters worse by infusing false hope? Apart from equipping the lean drama with moral quandaries, Fischer and his co-writer Ika Kunzel subtly turns it into a striking political allegory. The moving, microcosmic image of the refugee boy begging the white European to ‘do something’ speaks of the uncomfortable silence of Western world in witnessing the muffled cries of the dispossessed (the titular sacred, mythological river also provokes thought on similar lines).

Styx was mostly filmed with a crew of eight in an 11-meter yacht. They have certainly braved the unpredictable quotient of open-water shoot, while also keeping intact the tension arising out of solo sea voyage. Cinematographer Benedict Nuenfels and director Fischer has done a commendable job in unfurling the story and its emotions without lot of expositions and dialogues. Susanne Wolff’s subtly emotive and physical performance has allowed the film-maker to preserve his narrative’s understated quality. There’s no backstory to Rike, but Wolff remarkably establishes the character’s motivation, her inner torment through few piercing looks. The abrupt, simplistic ending does dilutes the effect the film has on us. Nevertheless, Styx (94 minutes) is memorable for the thoughtful and compassionate way it deals the morally challenging and politically sensitive subject.  


Woman at War [2018] – A Moving and Layered Drama on the Dominant Problem of Our Times

Iceland film-maker Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War (2018) is about a dynamic, middle-aged woman’s relentless crusade to ‘save the world’, which doesn’t involve fighting aliens or rogue nation states in possession of nuclear weapons. She rather sabotages power lines in the beautiful and striking Reykjavik countryside, which carries electricity to an aluminium smelter plant. At the woman’s flat, there’s the portraits of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, leaders who sabotaged infrastructures that really got the attention of their colonizers. Yet, Woman at War couldn’t be labeled as a pamphleteering, propaganda film, narrowly focusing on the conundrum existing between climate change and economic growth. In fact, Benedikt Erlignsson’s interesting storytelling method goes beyond the ominous tone of an apocalyptic story and innovatively characterizes the inner conflicts of a determined monkey-wrencher that it’s hard to not succumb to its off-beat charms.

Woman at War, which premiered during the International Critics’ Week at 2018 Cannes Film Festival, opens with Halla (a very brilliant Halldora Geirhardsdottir) using a bow and arrow to destroy the power tower, disrupting the operations of a aluminium factory. After outmaneuvering government helicopters and police force, Halla gets out of the countryside to Reykjavik with the help of an ‘alleged’ cousin (Johann Sigurdarson), a stoic sheep farmer. At the city, Halla plays the role of an elegant middle-aged woman where she works as a choir-director. Right when Halla’s actions draw more debate on media and among public, she gets a call from the adoption agency notifying her that she can now adopt a 4-year-old Ukrainian girl, orphaned by war (she put in the application years ago).

Halla has to choose between motherhood and industrial sabotage. Before taking a decision, she goes to meet her identical twin sister Asa, also mentioned as the back-up parent in the adoption application. Asa aspires to be a sage, who is about to go on a retreat to India. Both are selfless souls, mindful of the world’s problems. While Halla believes in actions that fixes the problems, Asa takes up an inward search and attempts to fix herself through meditation. Meanwhile, Halla types up a manifesto (in which she calls herself ‘Mountain Woman’) and tosses-up copies of it from the roof of a college building. The scathing words directed against the powers that be sets off an elaborate political propaganda, by the end of which she is written off as a terrorist and as the source of all economic troubles ailing Iceland. Subsequently, Halla intensifies the crusade by bringing down power lines with stolen Semtex explosives. In the ensuing chase, involving helicopters, surveillance drones, and police check-posts, Halla barely escapes from her pursuers. At the back of her mind, there’s still the dilemma of whether to ‘save’ humanity through her idealistic endeavors or to just save a kid and enrich her life.

Benedikt Erlingsson proved himself to be a film-maker with flair in his debut feature Of Horses and Men (2013). With Woman at War, he includes a puckish sense of humor and abusrdism which clearly doesn’t downplay the serious themes at play. Mr. Erlingsson breaks the fourth wall by using the musicians (not just the music) to comment on the actions. A trio of Icelandic musicians (drums, harmonium, and tuba) – which includes the composer David Thor Jonsson -- is seen throughout the film whom Halla only sees performing the music exclusively for her. They are the witnesses to the woman’s personal war. Halla occasionally cues the musicians, this magical interaction highlighting the woman’s inner emotions and the nature of her actions. When Halla hears the news about Ukrainian girl from the adoption agency, a trio of Ukrainian folk singers dressed in traditional attire also pop up in her world. When Halla eventually catches up a flight to Ukraine, the folk singers and Icelandic musicians play together, probably underlining the synergy of her life goals. On other occasions, the mere presence of musicians provides the foreboding feel; like when Halla reaches the airport, only to see the drummer sitting alone in the parking lot. The implication of this is made clear even before the drummer plays his score.

The shots of picturesque Icelandic landscapes (cinematography by Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson) are always stunning to look at, and here the nature is one of the pivotal themes. Erlingsson pays tribute to nature by showing how it recuperates Halla (a beautiful shot of hot-springs) and grants her refuge. The director has thrown in lot of interesting visual gags and running jokes (one involving a hapless Spanish bicycle tourist). For the most part, it’s an entertaining directorial style, which similar to the works of Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki balances between comedy and pain. The script written by Erlingsson and Olafur Egilsson superbly tackles the moral complexity of the central character and the big issues at its core. The writing deftly interrogates Halla’s emotions instead of projecting her simply as an eco-warrior; even her own sense of self-importance is questioned in the narrative flow. The contrasts in the narrative are beautifully orchestrated: for instance, a jolly-good last minute twist is followed up with a somber situation (of world drowning) and yet the chorus in the background emphasizes upon hope. In spite of setting off the tone of an action movie, the writing never confines itself to genre conventions. And it ends in a quietly affecting manner without striving to make grand statements or provide due catharsis. 

Overall, Woman at War (101 minutes) is a well-crafted, quirky adventure drama that also doubles up as a thought-provoking climate change movie. 


Zoology [2016] – A Strange Yet Endearing Tale of Personal Growth

“My view of modern society is quite pessimistic”, says the young Russian film-maker Ivan I. Tverdovsky, whose two feature films are about individuals being harshly persecuted by the society for being themselves and expressing their feelings. If the Russian helmer’s debut feature Corrections Class (2014) revolves around a pretty, differently-abled 11th grader Lena (has myopathy and bounded to a wheelchair), his sophomore effort Zoology (2016) tells the tale of shy, lonely fifty-something Natasha. Despite the protagonists’ difference in age and place in their society, director/writer Tverdovsky’s focus lies upon the individuals’ awakening and spurt of non-conformity that’s squashed down in a cruel, spiteful manner. The interesting aspect of Tverdovsky’s compact story lines is that it works as a specific commentary on Putin’s Russia, while on a broader note it also delivers a piercing critique on general perceptions of gender, sexuality, and darker human impulses.

Zoology (Zoologiya) is one weird dramedy which amalgamates Soviet cinema’s social realist tone (aka ‘Russian miserablism’) with Cronenbergian body horror elements. The result is a well-balanced contemporary fable, boasting strong emotional anchor to support the tale’s unorthodox idea. The film opens with 55 year old Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) standing still at the center of whitish atmosphere. It’s as if she is dead and floating on the clouds to reach heaven. But no, she is just standing within the confines of her drab administrative office, overlooking the sea and overcast sky. Natasha is the procurement manager at a zoo and as she stands motionless, her chatty colleagues gorge upon the latest juiciest piece of gossip. Unexpectedly, Natasha faints and falls to the floor. It seems our middle-aged protagonist expresses more emotions when she looks at caged animals. She is the butt of her rumor-mongering co-workers’ jokes (their idea of bullying includes filling her desk drawer with pack of rats). Moreover, Natasha’s compliance is fiercely sought by the boss, especially when it comes to buying sub-standard foods for the animals she loves.

Life is drab at home too. Natasha hides her smoking habit from religiously orthodox, domineering mother (Irina Chipizhenko) and their relationship is painted in shades of grey. After the earlier fainting episode, Natasha experiences great deal of pain in the back and discovers that she has grown a tail. She goes to a doctor, who orders her to take an X-ray. The doctor and Natasha treat the tail growth with matter of fact-ness, similar to the Kafka’s matter of-fact presentation of the bizarre events in ‘Metamorphosis’. Despite the initial pain and inconvenience of the tail, Natasha soon finds that this physical anomaly has its boons too. She finds a way to use her phallic tail to pleasure herself in a scene in the bathtub. Most importantly, the appendage puts her under the gaze of Petya (Dmitri Groshev), a handsome young radiographer. He is actually attracted to Natasha because of the tail. His unwavering attention brings upon an emotional and sexual awakening, as Natasha tries new hairdo, cut short her long skirts, and goes wild on a dance floor. Meanwhile, rumors float amidst the residents of sea-side town about a shape-shifting devil which has possessed a local woman. Gradually, Natasha’s desire for self-empowerment is threatened by society’s penchant for mundanity and conformity. ‘What if a woman grows a tail?’ might be the central bizarre question that sets off the narrative. But eventually, Zoology uses the improbable occurrence to understatedly put forth this question: what if a woman seeks a new lease of life? That’s what makes Natasha’s life journey believable, memorable, and irrevocably sad.

Similar to contemporary Hungarian film-maker Gyorgy Palfi’s weird stories of transition, Tverdovsky's unique and strange intentions in Zoology explores the imposed limits of human desires and interconnectedness. The narrative also boasts the quiet confidence to make it work on a sociopolitical level too (as an allegory on the absurdities and disillusionment in Putin’s regime; Palfi’s movies also doubles up as allegory on life in authoritarian Hungary). Director Tverdovsky fascinatingly makes the limits not just figurative, but literal. Natasha’s life near the sea hints at her existence at the edge. The sea clearly shows she has nowhere to go, and the only transition possible is internal or physical. The caged animals in the provincial town’s small zoo further highlight her grim isolation.

Tverdovsky’s film-making style is as muted as Natasha’s initial mindset. Earlier, he frames her in static shots, making her look unassuming and small; she's yet another colorless object in the drab surroundings. Tverdovsky shifts to handheld camera and observational documentary approach, when Natasha slowly discovers her own sense of self. In the scene Petya guides her up the slope to playfully slide down using a large aluminum basin, the camera gets closer to Natasha to intimately catch her belated adolescent blossoming. One of the great achievements of the movie is the effortless way it evokes nervous laughter and emotional discomfort at the same time (for eg, the ‘zoo cage’ scene). At some point, it becomes clear that Zoology is not headed for upbeat ending. Yet the empathy it shows for the ostracized protagonist persuades viewers to watch it till the end. And, Natalya Pavlenkova perfectly wears the physical oddity and provides deeper understanding of her livelier character. Regardless of whether one can dissect the story’s obscure metaphors or not, Natalya’s performance adds a poignant touch to the proceedings.

Zoology (90 minutes) uses an uncanny element to neatly explore a repressed woman’s emotional upheaval. Utilizing absurdist humor and stark realism in equal measures, it showcases the cost of being ‘different’.