BIFF is more than halfway done and alas, I’ve only got three films under my belt. Other responsibilities have kept me away from the screens–not to mention work, a nasty cold, and at least two hangovers that could only be described as genocidal–but despite all this I’ve managed to take in a sampling of cinema as varied as one can hope for, with at least one nice surprise in the mix. Sure, I’ll win no cinephile medals this time around, but I do plan on watching a few more pics. Until then, here are three quick reviews of what I have seen:
Over the past couple of decades Iran has become a major player on the world cinema stage. There must be something in the water–or perhaps its the cold, dry mountain air–but Iranian directors have been creating cinematic gems for some time now. Their country’s vibrant film scene belies its otherwise repressive reputation, so I jumped at the chance to catch a press screening Saman Salur’s first full-length feature.
Sun Station focuses on Hassan, a man who lives in a burnt-out railway car with Ghader, a grizzled old dude who also acts as Hassan’s landlord. Ghader works for the railway, while Hassan passes the time shooting the breeze with Asghar, a shaved-headed street urchin who crashes with him from time to time. The husk of a train sits on a section of sidetrack in a river gorge. Early in the film we learn that the main bridge across the river has collapsed. This endows the otherwise hapless Hassan with a bit of power, since it is now his responsibility to ferry passengers across the river via a rickey hand-cranked cable car that looks like it’s been attached with paper clips and chewing gum. Of course none of the locals ever want to pay for the trip across, which forces the destitute Hassan to spit and foam and haggle each time like a carpet seller in the local souk. Hassan isn’t the only one, however. Most of the other characters seem to shout their way through movie as well. They’re constantly gesticulating and bellowing in histrionic Farsi, like unshaven Italians on meth. I never knew Iranians were so dramatic. Maybe that’s why their films are so good.
Sun Station employs some heavy handed symbolism and the wafer-thin plot gets pretty hackneyed in the the end, but even so, I liked the film. For one thing, I laughed. Several times. This is reason enough knock it up a couple notches on my esteem-o-meter, since one of my primary beefs about BIFF films is that so many are utterly humorless. Moreover, Sun Station focuses on the humanity of all its characters. Everyone is broken and flawed but doing their best in very unforgiving surroundings, both physically (a burned-out train, a stark mountain valley) and metaphorically (poverty, modern society, the shackles of guilt). It’s as if the director wants to say, “We’re all this together, so we may as well get through it with love and a bit of laughter.”
Something is rotten in the state of Kashmir. Haider returns from his university studies in the south to discover that his family home has been blown up in an army raid against Islamic separatist militants. His father, a prominent doctor, was accused of aiding a known terrorist. He was arrested and is nowhere to be found. To make matters worse, his mother is now shacked up with his uncle, a local prosecutor. When he finds out that his uncle actually ordered his father’s abduction and subsequent murder, Haider loses his shit and vows revenge.
Sound familiar? Well it should, because it’s the same story as Hamlet. And I have to admit, when I first read the synopsis and saw that this was a two and a half hour adaptation of Shakespeare’s famed psychological tragedy, I nearly bailed. Because I hate Hamlet. I don’t hate the play per se, but I have had to sit through so many awful, tedious, make-me-want-to-pull-my-innards-out adaptations (both on stage and screen), that I swore I’d never put myself through such agony again..
Haider is set in Kashmir in 1995, a restive place in the midst of a violent separatist campaign and a crackdown by the Indian army that was in many ways more nasty than the initial violence. Kashmir was (and still is) a proxy battle ground in the cold war between India and Pakistan, and many of the locals are caught in the middle. This is certainly the case with Haider’s family, and I found myself not really blaming them for all of their actions, knowing that greater forces were bearing down.
Haider is by far the best Hamlet adaptation I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is stunning, and the story works perfectly among the upheaval of Kashmir in the 90’s. Director Vishal Bhardwaj has plenty of experience adapting Shakespeare to the screen, having done versions of both Macbeth and Othello. He keeps this film firmly on local soil, exploring Shakespeare’s great work while giving us some proper Indian treats (yes, there is a musical number, and it’s brilliant). And Haider features the bloodiest, highest-body-count ending in this history of the Hamlet, employing Kalashnikovs, heavy machine guns, hand grenades, and a suicide bomber belt.
Pier Paolo Pasolini was an Italian poet and filmmaker, known to me and most others for Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, which remains one of the most notorious and controversial films ever made. Salo is inspired by the writings of the Marquis de Sade, and features eighteen teenage boys and girls subjected to four months of extreme torture. The film depicts endless scenes of sodomy, violence, and even poo eating. Yes, it’s that nasty. It’s a bracing work of depravity and horror, Pasolini’s commentary on modern consumerist, capitalist society.
Of course Pasolini was a well-known figure in Italy and Europe well before Salo came out. He was a poet, a journalist, a playwright, and actor. He was also openly gay, with a preference for rather young men. On November 2nd, 1975, he was murdered on a beach near Rome, shortly before Salo was released.
Pasolini recomposes, and perhaps imagines, that fateful last day of his life, from the moment he is awakened by his mother (So he lives with his mama, he’s Italian!) to his final breaths on the beach after he is stomped by three thugs and run over with his own car. Hell of a way to go.
I had high hopes for this film. It is directed by American rebel filmmaker Abel Ferrara who did the original Bad Lieutenant, and stars the usually awesome Willem Dafoe. It was shot on location in Italy by a team that probably holds Pasolini in great reverence. It has all the ingredients to pop, but instead comes out rather… flat.
The script is primarily to blame. It jumps from Pasolini’s political views (he was an avowed Marxist, yet seemed to live the good life) to his personal life to a screenplay he’s composing in his head and back again. It’s all over the place, a mess of a story with zero cohesion. While attempting to pay tribute to the man, Pasolini has no idea of what kind of movie it really wants to be, and instead comes off as boring, which I’m sure the maestro himself would never have abided.
Maybe it needs more poo eating.