Leviathan is certainly a beautifully-made film with excellent performances, great cinematography and a richly-layered narrative. But I’m not sure whether I’ve completely grasped it on a first viewing. Perhaps I was over-tired but I did sense the narrative intensity slow around the mid-point. I also noted some missing connections – again perhaps I simply didn’t see them. I suspect that my fears will prove groundless after a second or third viewing.
There has already been a great deal written about a film which is currently vying with Pawlikowski’s Ida (review coming here soon) for top European film of the year. I’ll try not to cover the same ground but I need first to introduce the background to the story. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin got the story idea from an American news report about a man in the Mid-West. The set-up is both universal and very Russian. The film’s title refers to both the sea monster of the Book of Job and Hobbes’ book on the philosophy of the ‘contract’ between the state and the individual. The only thing I can remember about Hobbes is his description of life as “nasty, brutish and short”. I think I saw recently that Russia is one of the few places where life expectancy for men was for a period falling – largely because of excessive vodka drinking. The man at the centre of Leviathan is Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov). He has built a house and a workshop on a headland overlooking a bay on the coast in the Murmansk Oblast (that’s northern Russia’s Arctic coast – or the Barents Sea). Now it appears that the corrupt local mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) has successfully conspired to seize the house and its land. The legal process is nearing completion. Kolia’s last resort is to send for Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov), his former ‘junior’ officer in the Russian Army and now a slick Moscow lawyer. Dmitri’s arrival has unexpected consequences for Kolia and his little family – his young teenage son Roma and his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova).
The three things that struck me most about the film were the sense of place, mainly achieved through the ‘Scope cinematography, the attention given to the church and the eroticism of Lilya as the woman caught in the middle of what is essentially a male narrative. I haven’t seen the director’s earlier films but I do have a DVD of The Return which I’m now determined to watch. Even so the Russian landscape (and local culture) seemed familiar partly because I’d seen the short documentaries shot in the Murmansk region that were shown at the Bradford Film Festival earlier this year and partly because similar landscapes are found in Northern Norway. I presume that Leviathan is set in summer since there are only small pockets of snow – but it still means that the land has a hard and cold beauty rather than the lushness of summer further south.
Hobbes always struck me as offering the bleakest possible view of humanity and forms of governance – in which survival is only possible because the majority agree to surrender all power to a single strong ruler in order to avoid civil war. Russia seems to be a society that has never escaped from the grip of this kind of pessimistic view of the world – apart from brief periods. Hobbes also included the strong connection between the church and the absolute ruler. One of the features of Leviathan the film, is the role played by the Orthodox church leader (a bishop?). This character makes two important appearances in the narrative and seems only interested in consolidating his own power. But director Zvyagintsev also offers us a priest whose activities include feeding the poor.
The film’s narrative offers us a man who fights for his family and his home. He is irascible and prone to lose his temper but he is passionate about his beliefs. He’s up against a system that is presented as absurd in its adherence to procedures when decisions have already been taken by corrupted officials. This is neatly visualised in a pair of scenes. In the first, one of three women on the bench of the local court reads through a judgement at breakneck speed confirming that Kolia’s appeals are worthless and in another in the Mayor’s office, under a portrait of Putin, local officials are berated by the Mayor and reminded of what they need to do to protect their corrupt local power base. Much has been made of the fact that the film is supported by state funding/recognition but that it appears to be condemnatory. This is a good example of how films can be read differently by different people in different circumstances. Zvyagintsev has made various statements about the film’s themes and these have been interpreted in almost completely opposed ways. There is far too much going on in the film to make any kind of glib interpretation. It is important to note that the key moment in the narrative is perhaps the ‘shooting party’, a birthday celebration and another excuse for serious drinking. This includes some interesting ‘commentary’ (‘jokes’) on Russian gun culture, the legacy of military service and attitudes towards Russia’s leaders of past and present. It also provokes the incident which triggers the excess of the family melodrama. This returns us to the roles of women in the film. I almost feel like I need to see the film again before I can say anything about the female roles and it does seem to me that everything I’ve read about the film has come from men.
I wonder if I’m trying to read the women in the film as pragmatic – concerned with family, work, love, sex etc. rather than power? Do the women who agree to support the mayor do so because it makes life more tolerable and allows them to do the more important things? If you start to feel that getting on with life instead of resisting corrupt power is the only way, what does that mean? At this point I realise that most of the UK population don’t go out of their way to resist the corrupt power of the financial-political élite who rule in the UK. Somebody suggested to me recently that Leviathan was the most depressing film that they’d seen for a long time. I have to disagree. It made me think and when I think, I’m still alive. I’m not depressed. I would recommend Leviathan to anyone who feels the same way.
Titli is another important film in the gradual emergence of an ‘Independent Indian Cinema’. It represented the new strain of Indian cinema at Cannes this year and is still waiting for a release in India after festival screenings around the world. I was excited to see the film at the Leeds Festival – but disappointed in my quick scan of the audience around me by the absence of the local South Asian audience. We struggle to see Indian independents in UK cinemas and often they appear fleetingly in arthouse rather than multiplex cinemas. Titli is a debut (fiction feature) directorial outing for Kanu Behl, a graduate of the Satyajit Ray Film Institute in Kolkata. He himself is Punjabi and in the 1990s he grew up in Delhi with his parents – both actors, writers and directors. In 2007 he began an association with film festival workshops and Titli has been developed as part of a NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) Screenwriters’ Laboratory. Behl worked with Dibakar Banerjee on Oye Lucky!, Lucky Oye! in 2008 and Banerjee is the producer on Titli, making the film the first part of a partnership between his own production company and the mainstream production house Yash Raj Films – best known for Bollywood spectaculars. Banerjee is one of the leading figures in ‘Independent Hindi Cinema’ and took his place alongside Anurag Kashyap as a director on the compendium film project Bombay Talkies.
‘Titli’ means ‘Butterfly’ in Hindi and as a name for the lead character in the film, the youngest of three brothers, it is one of the reasons why he is teased and treated as naive. But Titli has plans to escape his all male family in a Delhi colony. While his elderly father (played by the director’s father) stays in the background, his two older brothers run a racket based on violent car-jackings in conjunction with a corrupt local police chief. Played by newcomer Shashank Arora, Titli is physically weaker, but, we suspect, a little brighter, than his brothers. The eldest brother Vikram, played by Ranvir Shorey (a comic actor in the other performances I’ve seen) is a terrifying brute here with the actor having piled on extra flab. Titli wants to escape and the rest of the family want enough capital to start a legitimate ‘cover’ business. But when the latest car-jacking goes wrong, losing everyone’s cash, Titli is chosen to be the means of recovery – by marrying him off to a young woman who could also be used in the family ‘business’. But the chosen bride (a suspiciously pretty young woman from a seemingly more established family) has plans of her own and she and Titli share a desire to escape. That’s enough spoilers. The script is well thought through and with good performances all round and lively camerawork, Titli is very successful. I’ve seen festival reviews which refer to violence ‘off-screen’ but I found that what was ‘on-screen’ was quite violent enough. I think that the preferred term for characters like Vikram is ‘a goon’ and he uses a hammer as a weapon of choice. This kind of violence is mainstream in India so I clench my teeth and sometimes close my eyes.
I want to recommend Omar’s review of the film on his new blog at Movie Mahal. He suggests that Titli marries the crime film and the traditional Hindi family melodrama – but of course here removes the mother figure. The new wife comes into an entirely masculine home (which production designers made even more claustrophobic by altering the rooms in the ‘on location’ dwelling). The second woman who exerts some external control over the family is Vikram’s divorced wife who demands her dues and causes further financial pressure. As well as this mixing of genres, Omar also notes the possible mixing of filming styles with elements of neo-realism feeding into the action sequences. I’ve seen references to improvised dialogue for many scenes and also the suggestion that the film was shot on 16mm to achieve a grittier feel. Neo-realism does move a narrative forward on the basis of simple but devastating problems associated with lack of money but what is important in Titli is perhaps that Titli the character is something of a fantasist/dreamer and that he has to recognise that he needs to become more realistic in his ambitions. His fantasies are based on the latest scam to involve India’s urban growth – the control of parking franchises in the new tower blocks seemingly rising everywhere in Delhi.
Films like Titli are conventional in the Western sense, i.e. they are recognisable as generic mixes which don’t utilise the specific conventions of the Bollywood (or Tamil/Telugu) masala film. There are no dance routines or ‘item girls’ but otherwise they are associated with the mainstream. I hope that the UK distribution arms of Yash Raj, Studio 18, UTV and Eros can get them into UK cinemas on a more consistent basis.
Muerte de un ciclista features in the short retrospective of films by Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem offered at the 28th Leeds International Film Festival. Unfortunately this title appeared to be projected from an American DVD, but even so its status as an important film produced in Spain under the Franco regime was not in doubt.
The screening was introduced (sorry, I missed the speaker’s name – anybody know?) and we were told about Bardem’s difficulties with censorship. Apparently the censors refused his original ending but Bardem tried the strategy of offering multiple choices for an alternative ending, gambling perhaps that the censors would be hoist with their own petard. I’m still thinking about how the final version actually works in terms of ideological struggle.
The film has been discussed as relating to various styles and genres. I was surprised by the extent to which I began to see it as a film noir. Partly I think it is because of the strong performance of Lucia Bosè as a convincing femme fatale – albeit seemingly weak, but in practice deadly in her selfishness. Bosè, though still only 24, was a former Miss Italy and already a star, but was about to move to Spain to marry the leading matador Luis Miguel Dominguín. She has great erotic appeal in the film despite some of the unflattering early 1950s fashions. Her early successes were in neo-realist films and these offer another starting point for classifying Muerte de un ciclista.
The film begins with the incident that provides the title. Lucia Bosè is María, a wealthy married woman driving her lover Juan (Alberto Closas) back from a tryst when her car hits a cyclist on an open road. Juan wants to try to save the dying man, but María hurries him away fearing exposure. The man does indeed die and the lovers realise that they are going to have to live with the fear of exposure. This fear is heightened by the local celebrity gossip who suggests he knows something about María but won’t say what it is. She must try to find out what he knows and Juan goes into the working-class quarters of Madrid attempting to find out if the dead man’s family know anything following the police investigation of the death.
The introduction to the film pointed out that 1955 in Spain was marked by student protests in the universities (and by a meeting of filmmakers at Salamanca University) and such scenes occur in this film since Juan is a junior university teacher – a post he has because his brother-in-law is the university dean. What follows the opening accident is a narrative structured something like a neo-realist film. In an attempt to prevent their guilt becoming known, Juan and María undergo several ‘trials’ and humiliations – much like Antonio in Bicycle Thieves. In the process we learn more about the couple (though mostly more about Juan, primarily a ‘good man’ who has been a moral coward). The real question is what exactly was Bardem trying to say? How did he think his film would be seen as oppositional? Did he win his game of cat and mouse with the censor?
One argument is that the film is mainly concerned with exposing the lack of conscience of the middle classes and the ways in which they can easily ignore the sufferings of the poor – as well as the criticisms of the young. Bardem emphasise this by juxtaposing very different styles, e.g. the neo-realism of Juan’s visit to the home of the cyclist and the expressionist camerawork and low key lighting of scenes in night clubs and when Juan and María meet. Bardem had attended the first Spanish film school started in 1947. This was where he met Berlanga. Bardem was also self-taught in terms of his knowledge of Soviet Cinema and this is evident in one startling cut when the drunken gossiper throws a bottle at wedding and the edit reveals a broken window at the university where Juan is in trouble. The melodrama of Juan’s downfall is heightened by the symbolic shattered glass through which we see him.
Juan’s conscience and his ‘re-discovery’ of himself is at the heart of the narrative. He seems ill at ease with how his life has worked out but also thinks he has disappointed his mother – an important figure in the Spanish wealthy classes. There is a problem with some of the aspects of Juan’s story. He implies that he and María were teenage lovers during the war, but Lucia Bosè is far too young to be a thirty-plus María in 1955 (even if the ‘war’ is defined as including the fascists’ campaign against Republican guerillas that continued after 1939). I’m slightly puzzled by Juan and how Bardem uses him as the protagonist. He seems to be a weak man, easily led by María but not a fascist hero. The argument is that he is in some ways a ‘traitor’ to the class cause because he allows his conscience to trouble him! I’m also surprised the censors allowed the extensive footage of student protest. Overall, I didn’t get the same sense of a clear satire or anti-fascist allegory that I’ve found in the work of Carlos Saura. Rob Stone in his 2002 book on Spanish Cinema (Longman) suggests that Bardem’s juxtaposition of styles stripped away the sentimentality of neo-realism and allowed it to strengthen the impact of the melodrama (which in a Hollywood film would be purely ‘personal’ in its use of moral or social problems but which here points to the moral bankruptcy of a social class)(pp 48-9). Stone also points towards the use of deep focus (a feature of the long shot/long take approach in Rossellini’s neo-realist films) which enables Bardem to focus on Juan, but also to show the world around him – a world suffering under the impact of fascism.
I guess this discussion of melodrama points us towards Sirk and Fassbinder and their uses of melodrama as a means of subversion. I think I’d need another viewing to fully take on board Stone’s argument but I was certainly impressed by the melodrama/noir that is Muerte de un ciclista.
A detailed analysis of the film by Marsha Kinder (which expands Stone’s analysis) is available on the Criterion website.
Quite a few good films coming out of Oz in the last year or two I think. The Babadook is intriguing and I’m still thinking about it. There seem to be several references to classic haunted house/melodrama/demonic possession movies of the 1960s-80s though I worry that I might not recognise the modern references so I can’t really comment on how ‘fresh’ it is. But for a low budget Kickstarter-aided film from a relatively inexperienced director it is pretty impressive. There aren’t enough horror films made by women and it’s interesting that the most frightening scene in Jennifer Kent’s movie for me was the clutch of glammed-up young mothers at a children’s birthday party with their matching gift bags – very ‘Stepford Wives’!
The Babadook is that old standby, a magic or ‘possessed’ book, in this instance a child’s pop-up book with rather interesting drawings (charcoal or pen and ink?). The book finds its way into the decidedly Gothic old house of Amelia, the widowed mother of 6 year-old Samuel. Samuel’s father was killed driving his wife to hospital on the night she gave birth and Samuel’s upcoming birthday is a significant date. Amelia is sleeping badly and Samuel is a difficult child who is driving her to distraction with his fears about monsters. Neither of them need the further pressure of a new monster threatening to cause havoc and terror in the household. But once you’ve read the book, your fate is apparently sealed . . .
I was amazed to read that the film’s producer suggested that this was an ‘arthouse film’ and that this explained why it had only a limited release in Australia. The Guardian reported that the film made more in the first weekend of its UK release (on 147 screens) than in its entire release in Australia. Australian distribution seems to be in even more of a crisis than in the UK.
It isn’t an art film for me, rather an intelligent genre film that marries the familiar tropes of the haunted house/demonic possession genre with the good old family melodrama. Apart from Samuel and the demon/ghost, the only other male character who appears more than once is the nice young man at the care home where Amelia works. Much more significant are Amelia’s sister and the older woman next door. Essie Davis is very good as Amelia and she joins Deborah Kerr (The Innocents), Nicole Kidman (The Others) and Bélen Rueda (The Orphanage) as a woman under pressure trying to cope with small children. The Babadook doesn’t have the budget of those earlier films and it doesn’t have the allegorical status of the latter two, but it is distinctive. I’m not sure how ‘Australian’ it is – or whether this matters. (In terms of its difficulties in getting a wide release in Australia, this seems contradictory – the more an Australian film is recognised by overseas audiences first, the better chance it is supposed to have with domestic audiences who respond to foreign commendations. At least, that’s how I read comments from Australia.)
The colour palette is drained and costumes have generally been chosen in muted colours. Added to that, the costumes look very old-fashioned (is this a period film?) and the actors in minor roles have unusual faces and expressions. Check out the trailer below. The television seems to play a bizarre range of violent cartoons and a selection of films that includes Mario Bava(!), George Méliès and a Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in peril’ noir. (It appears to be The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, when it should be Sorry, Wrong Number?) The more I think about the film, the more references come to mind. Although the stories are different in terms of the ghost, there are strong connections to the Nakata Hideo film Dark Water (Japan 2002) which was in turn remade by Walter Salles for Hollywood. The social pressures on Amelia as a single mother are not as great as in the Japanese context but they are definitely there.
I think the film deserves its generally very good critical reception and I’m glad it seems to be attracting audiences. My only complaint would be that having imposed restraint for three quarters of the film, Jennifer Kent perhaps let go too much in the final quarter, changing the overall tone of the film.