Search results for: Shabanah Fazal

Rahm (Mercy, Pakistan-UK 2016)

Rahm film poster

(This post is written by Shabanah Fazal and posted by Roy Stafford)

Rahm (Mercy) is an impressive independent British-Pakistani film that was well received by the few critics who gave it attention, but it did not perform well at the box office, probably due to problems with distribution and publicity. It was the producers’ first film to be released in Pakistan and has been on wider release – notably in Britain and France – but deserves a much wider audience. It’s a clever, compelling adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure but I want to stress that you neither need to know the play nor be a Shakespeare lover to enjoy it. It tells the story of a wise but overly lenient Duke who falls ill and puts his zealous, puritanical deputy in temporary charge. The young deputy imposes new draconian punishments for immorality and condemns a man to death for fornication, to be spared only if his devout sister submits to him sexually. The tale has been transposed to an imaginary modern-day Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital, ruled by a governor who has allowed vice in the form of brothels and corruption to run riot. The central characters are impressively played by accomplished Pakistani actors. Sajid Hasan brings the right degree of kindly gravitas to the role of governor (Duke), Sunil Shanker captures the sinister charisma of Qazi (Angelo), Rohail Pirzada the human weakness of the condemned brother Qasim (Claudio) and Sanam Saeed the pious passion and dignified self-control of his sister Sameena (Isabella).

Sanam Saeed as Sameena

It’s a play I’m very familiar with, having studied and taught it at college level. Though fascinating in terms of themes and characters, it is categorised in Shakespeare’s oeuvre as a ‘problem play’. It is rarely staged these days, because of its mix of tones and genre elements that are hard for a contemporary western audience to take. But I found it actually worked far better in a Pakistani Islamic setting, because of the close parallels with the Elizabethan world of Puritan hypocrisy, corruption of power and sexual honour. Perhaps its most powerful theme is the struggle between mercy and justice: in the film governor and deputy perfectly embody the tension between homegrown Sufi traditions of tolerance and compassion, and the increasing infiltration into Pakistan of an extreme punitive Saudi Islamic ideology.

A key problem for western audiences has traditionally been sympathising with the pious sister (a nun in the original play) determined to preserve her chastity, even at the cost of her brother’s life. The recent London Donmar Warehouse stage production succeeded by putting her story into the context of the ‘Me Too’ movement of women standing up to the abuse of power by males. In the film, her stance is even more credible not just because she’s defending her honour as a Muslim woman, but also like many younger, educated Muslim women these days, asserting a new knowledge of her rights within Islam. I was intrigued by the very closing shots, which created a subtler and less problematic ending for her than in the play, and gave me much food for thought. The play’s plot, though gripping, can also seem implausible at times and strains credibility in the second half with the infamous ‘bed trick’. In the film though, it’s far more convincing and easier to suspend our disbelief because the women’s faces are veiled. The few changes to the original made complete sense to me – for example, rather than couples being engaged, here they are Islamically married but missing documentary proof. And inevitably, to get past Pakistani censors, the script had to ignore many of the ‘low life’ characters’ obscure, obscene jokes from the original, which barely translate well even into modern English, the humour usually being lost on a modern audience. However, veteran Pakistani TV actor Nayyar Ejaz, as Qasim’s dissipated friend (Lucio in the play) still manages to capture his character’s comic irreverence and he gets his come-uppance through a visually entertaining gag. What’s more, replacing the play’s clownish pimp Pompey with the scene-stealing hijra (transsexual) character Gulzar provides more interesting, subversive comic relief.

Sunil Shanker

Sunil Shanker as Qazi

I saw the film at Square Chapel, Halifax, as part of a short festival of independent Pakistani film. We were lucky enough to have a Q&A afterwards with the creators, British-based director Ahmed Jamal and his brother, producer/writer Mahmood. They are devotees of both Shakespeare and Sufi culture, and the film is clearly a labour of love: it took 8 years to make, was shot on a very limited budget in just 27 days, and it was a tough fight to get distribution in Pakistan, through HKC Entertainment. Thankfully, their dedication paid off eventually and the film is also due to be screened on Channel 4 and released on DVD. Mahmood, a poet who has written and translated a great deal of Urdu poetry into English, stated that he wanted to keep his English-subtitled Urdu script faithful to the poetry and spirit of the original. And he succeeds admirably, with many echoes, paraphrases and even direct translations of Shakespeare’s lines that work remarkably well in Urdu. Not surprising then that Rahm won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2017 London Film Festival, as well as other Pakistani awards.

Sajid Hasan as the Governor

Sajid Hasan as the Governor

Some online reviews have complained of a lack of depth to the characters. I understand why they would say that, but in my view, the script portrays their essential qualities economically. And as with other new Pakistani independent films, the roles are played convincingly by quality performers, many from their highly acclaimed TV dramas. A few other reviews have suggested Rahm is more of a TV than a cinema film. True, it’s not cinematically adventurous, and there are a few clichéd shots (one in the trailer below, unfortunately), but the new wave of independent Pakistani directors are still struggling with tiny budgets and access to technical expertise. Above all though, the Jamal brothers have wisely focused on clear, intelligent storytelling. Like Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol (2011) and Josh (2011) – the other film in the Halifax season – Rahm’s central character is a strong heroine fighting for justice against abusive, powerful men, but the film style is more restrained. The focus on story makes for gripping viewing, and the film works for those who know the play well or those new to it. The audience I saw it with was about 50-50 white/Asian – all levels of Shakespearean knowledge and none – and judging from the spontaneous ringing applause at the end, everyone seemed to love it. In fact, it was all the better for the brothers’ decision not to go down the arthouse route, but instead to create a quality commercial film with dual international/Indian subcontinental appeal.

Anyone who enjoyed the 21st century Indian film adaptations of Shakespeare such as Omkara (Othello), Haider (Hamlet) and Maqbool (Macbeth) should definitely check out Rahm. I’ve seen them all and this is far superior: not only is it much more faithful but it avoids their masala elements, instead weaving in more authentic Sufi qawwali music and traditional dance of Lahore courtesans. Ahmed Jamal is clearly familiar with the shady charm of old Lahore, its winding streets, colonial and Moghul architecture and the red light area of Hira Mandi – all beautifully shot by cinematographer Jono Smith. Jamal celebrates the old city in Rahm almost as a character in its own right, revisiting places he first captured on screen in his 1991 TV documentary The Dancing Girls of Lahore. I enjoyed watching it many years ago, and it was a pleasant surprise to discover he had shot
that too.

Mahmood Jamal calls the film a ‘plea for tolerance from the heart of the Muslim world’, and one that should have much wider resonance in a world where some societies are increasingly drifting towards authoritarianism. Rahm makes a significant contribution to the recent Pakistani/diaspora film revival, but also works as a compelling human drama that anyone can enjoy.

Written by Shabanah Fazal – see her other posts on this blog

Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg, Germany 2014)

This paper was written by Shabanah Fazal

Dietrich Brüggemann ’s arresting fourth film about Catholic fundamentalism was a departure from his previous major features Renn wenn du Kannst (Run if you Can, 2010), 3 Zimmer, Küche Bad (Move, 2012). And Heil (2015), the wild satire on neo-Nazis he followed it with, looks like a determined over-reaction to it. Yet what links them all is self-aware comedy and a concern with darker aspects of contemporary German culture. All his films are available on DVD but take note that Neun Szenen and Heil do not have English subtitles. Brüggemann studied Directing at Potsdam Film and Television Academy and his interest in formal composition is also evident in his work as photographer, musician and producer of music videos. His short films are critically acclaimed and Stations of the Cross was widely feted at international film festivals. It is his first film to be screened on British television and I saw it late night on BBC4. I was deeply affected by it, perhaps because its small-scale but shocking narrative is served well by the intimacy of the television screen.

Brüggemann tells the story of 14 year-old Maria, who is preparing for her confirmation with Father Weber. She belongs to the Society of St Paul (based on the real Society of St Pius X), a fundamentalist off-shoot of the Catholic Church that rejects the reforms of Vatican II. With dwindling numbers, they see themselves as the embattled guardians of the Church’s original, pure teachings. Father Weber enjoins his young flock to fight a daily battle in their hearts against the ‘satanic temptations’ of the world and to sacrifice simple pleasures such as music, films, provocative clothes and even food. These restrictions are strictly reinforced at home by Maria’s domineering mother, who struggles to bring up her mute four-year old son. Caught between these twin pressures and eager to please both adults, Maria decides to sacrifice her life for the sake of her brother. She becomes anorexic and so begins the self-destructive journey of martyrdom signalled by the title. Brüggemann structures the film in chapters matching the 14 stations of the cross, which in Catholic tradition mark the stages of Christ’s suffering on the way to crucifixion.

Brüggemann wrote Stations of the Cross with his sister and regular collaborator Anna, who has also starred in many of his films. They were justly awarded the Silver Bear for Best Script at the Berlin Film Festival, a fact many reviewers seem to overlook in their focus on the film’s visual stillness. On the first viewing, it is the dense script – the power of the Word, especially in the long but compelling opening catechism scene – that drives the narrative forward. The intertitles also intensify the impact of a narrative that takes place over just seven days. They create a sense of inevitable doom (‘Jesus is condemned to death’ – in the first scene, by Father Weber’s indoctrination), comment ironically on the action (‘Jesus falls the first time’ – Maria’s chaste attraction to a fellow Christian boy) and point to a metaphorical purpose (‘Jesus is nailed to the cross’ –  Maria is a victim of Catholic ideology). Above all, their sheer incongruity underscores the tragi-comedy of a vulnerable teenage girl sacrificing her whole life for so little.  And Brüggemann’s choice of names seems to support this: the comically tautological ‘Maria Göttler’ (evoking a divine Virgin Mary), and ‘Christian’, the innocent evangelical boy she befriends.

Unlike other films about the Catholic Church such as The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002) and Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015), Brüggemann’s film does not set out to expose direct physical and sexual abuse.  Rather, his focus is the deeper psychological and emotional abuse that results from indoctrination into any kind of ideology. The film is devastating because of what church and family make Maria do to herself through mind control.  The director’s stated motivation for making the film was concern about the 21st century global upsurge in Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. He does not object to benign forms of religion and understands how the sense of community it offers for many fulfils a human need.  For Maria it becomes part of the surrogate family she creates around herself: Father Weber and Bernadette replace her own ineffectual father and unloving mother, and she herself plays surrogate mother to her young brother. Some reviewers see the film as a savage criticism of those who live by religion.  But it is clear to me that the director draws a distinction between the teachings of the Church and the central characters: Maria, Bernadette (her family’s au pair) and Christian are entirely sympathetic. The deeply vulnerable, naturalistic performance he draws out of 14 year old Leah van Acken in her first film role made me feel the desperation of a parent powerless to help. Even Father Weber (played by a young, attractive Florian Stetter) is a skilled, fair-minded teacher whose quiet charisma would cast a subtle spell over any impressionable teenage girl.  I had no trouble understanding why Maria would be seated at the right hand of her god and be so eager to tell him what he wants to hear.

Maria (Lea van Acken) in the car with her mother (Franziska Weisz)

Brüggemann plays out the conflict created by the imposition of ideology chiefly through family melodrama, the aspect of the film that resonated most with me.  In interviews, he urges the viewer to ask themselves “What are we doing to our kids?” when we use any ideology – whether that be religion, socialism or feminism – to torture our children.  Brüggemann’s friend Franziska Weiz, a seasoned professional actor, gives an indelible performance as Maria’s controlling mother.  Some reviewers have described her as a caricature with her near-hysterical imprecations against the dangers of “gospel and jazz!”  However, to anyone brought up by a strict religious parent, she is frighteningly familiar and convincing. Brüggemann says he based her on his own father during a fundamentalist phase of his life when he made his children attend a Society of Pius X church. Maria’s mother is arguably portrayed less as a Carrie-style demon mother but as a woman struggling to cope with a young autistic son, and an adolescent daughter whose sexuality she has been taught it is her duty to monitor at all times. She can also be read as a tragic victim of a patriarchal ideology that limits her role in life to home and motherhood.  It warps her energies into control of her daughter, so that in the domestic realm at least she has some power.  She repeatedly grinds Maria down and forces her to bend to her will, rewarding her with approval and affection.  In turn, like so many intelligent but powerless young women growing up in a patriarchal system, Maria comes to realise her only means of resistance to her mother is to outdo her in religious devotion. Her method is self-mortification, her body now being the only thing she still has any control over.  We see their power struggle being played out painfully in Station 2, where Maria’s mother forces her to put on her cardigan and pose smiling for a family photo, and the car scene, which acts as a visual metaphor for their entrapment in a destructive power-dynamic.

Brüggemann first experimented with a fixed camera and long static shots in his 2006 feature Neun Szenen (Nine Scenes). In Stations of the Cross, he works with long-time collaborator Alexander Sass to take it to another level: in the whole film, the camera moves only three times. The effect is to create a series of carefully composed painterly tableaux that evoke the traditional Christian iconography of the 14 stations of the cross.  On second and repeat viewings we are reminded of the original contemplative purpose of these images, but I feel Brüggemann’s aim is less spiritual than ironic. The opening tableau for example, reminds us of da Vinci’s Last Supper, foregrounding Father Weber as a false prophet whose ‘meal’ is a perversion of Christ’s. Credit should also go to production designer Klaus Peter-Platten for mise en scène decisions that intensify what Brüggemann calls ‘locked-in’ shots. In the first and the later confessional scenes, dim lighting and austere stage sets with tiny windows, severe horizontal and vertical lines signify the imprisonment of vulnerable minds like Maria. Through the confessional grille, Father Weber even admonishes her for ‘sins’ of her innocent imagination: pride in hoping that a boy would find her attractive and conceit for knowing the truth – that she would be a better mother to her brother. Time and again, she is presented as powerless and invisible, pushed to the edges of the frame. For example in Station 2 and 7, when she battles with her mother and then her gym teacher, she is forced to the other side of the frame, underscoring the futility of her resistance. In Station 9, as she awaits confirmation, her pale profile is lost amongst those of other children, and at the critical moment she even disappears below the frame.

Maria is isolated in the gym

For some, this kind of framing (not forgetting publicity material portraying Maria as Christ on the cross) make her too simply a victim to be truly interesting.  And arguably Brüggemann’s film is less subversive than either Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (2012) or Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch (2009). Both provide a more obvious sociological/political insight into the attraction that ‘exotic’ fundamentalist ways of life might have for rebellious young women alienated by the shallow materialism and dysfunctional family structures of the west. However I believe the aesthetic Brüggemann outlines in an interview with Indie Outlook is political in the best sense: his distancing of Maria and choice of wide shots in particular “liberate the spectator’s gaze . . . to observe the whole system” and find for themselves truths about ideology and power. We see an intriguing example of this in Station 7, where Maria is confronted with the demands of the world, having to dance to ‘satanic’ music during a mixed-sex gym class. In Stations 1 and 2, Brüggemann opts for planimetric shots (see Catherine Wheatley’s 2016 paper) to depict the rigid order of church confirmation class and family life. In ironic contrast, in the gym scene a line of classmates in the background of the shot rebel against their well-meaning teacher’s efforts to integrate Maria into the lesson by running in all directions. They then mock and insult her, leaving her isolated. Their comments reveal as much disdain for her indigenous brand of religious conservatism as for the head-scarfed Muslim girls who are exempted from PE. Brüggemann seems to suggest both are seen as alien and his visually disruptive shot perhaps represents the wider cultural conflicts of contemporary secular Germany.

Fr. Weber joins Maria’s mother at her bedside

The most debated aspect of the film is undoubtedly how far Brüggemann’s film aesthetic acts as an endorsement or a criticism of faith, as distinct from religion. There is no doubt that his story of martyrdom and the miraculous stands within the tradition of directors such as Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson and Lars von Trier. It has clear parallels with von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) but he rejects what has been dubbed von Trier’s ‘sado-modernism’ – a term that could also apply to Katrin Gemme’s 2013 horror-thriller Tore Tanzt (Nothing Bad can Happen), about the abuse of a naïve male ‘Jesus freak’.  He acknowledges the influence of these directors and speaks in interviews of believing in ‘Something Out There’. He also describes how his single-shot no-edit approach puts pressure on the actors to be ‘spiritually engaged in getting the scene right’. He clearly borrows elements of what Paul Schrader terms ‘transcendental style’ (distancing techniques such as slowness, long, static unedited shots, an absence of non-diegetic music etc).  But ultimately does he do so in order to offer a subtle critique of it?

Firstly, we see this in the vein of black comedy running through Brüggemann’s work.  He has spoken of his love of Monty Python and his early features were labelled ‘fresh comedies’ by the German press. He also clearly has a predilection for meta-cinema and his 2011 short One Shot takes mise en abîme to self-parodying extremes. Most interesting of all, he cites as his greatest influence Swedish director Roy Andersson, saying “I watched [his films] on my knees, spiritually”. Andersson’s cinema illustrates his theory of ‘trivialism’, whereby profound truths can come into focus in the most banal, absurd moments of everyday life. And by exaggerating these, the director can bring the viewer closer to those truths. Hence Brüggemann’s own definition of comedy as ‘truth and pain’. We see this played out in the tiny, absurd battles Maria is urged to fight on her way to the cross – whether persisting in taking off a cardigan to mortify her flesh, resisting a harmless Christian boy with whom she bonded over quadratic equations, or sacrificing Father Weber’s biscuit after confirmation class only to later choke on the same priest’s wafer. The idea that a biscuit can become the means by which an ideology kills a child is subtly satirical. Even the hyper-minimalist opening titles, intertitles and closing credits seem less of a reading challenge than a joke.

If all this isn’t apparent to some viewers, it is because of the director’s refusal to comment or condemn directly. For me, it is this very detachment that gives the film its paradoxical power: he appeals to the heart via the head. The viewer is held so far back in a position of helplessness from the protagonist that we are forced to see how she is caught in a larger system that will inevitably crush her. That makes it hard for us to shed the tears for her that we long to. In a TV interview Brüggemann stated: “the best way to make a comedy is with a straight face, and let the bomb explode on the audience’s side” – and the same applies to tragedy.  It describes exactly how I have felt on every viewing, as if something very big I didn’t even notice being planted had imploded unseen inside me.

Here’s one of Brüggemann’s short films, One Shot (no English subtitles but you can turn on German subtitles):

The ‘miracle ending’ (spoiler warning)

Secondly, we should consider his treatment of the ‘miracle’ ending – a very small one compared to the miracles at the end of Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) and Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Is it a similar reaffirmation of faith and or a bitter mockery of the very notion of miracles that demand such an extreme sacrifice? There is an equally ambiguous ending to Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes (2009), a film with a similarly restrained aesthetic in which a spiritual struggle is played out on a woman’s body – this time a paraplegic. Catherine Wheatley (2016) argues that both films are examples of ‘cinematic agnosticism’, that emphasise the fundamental ‘unknowability’ of spiritual experience. Brüggemann also insists his film can be viewed from many angles at once – serious or ironic. His final, most striking camera move is withheld till the final station ‘Jesus is laid in the tomb’. Unlike von Trier, he does not offer the thrilling consolation of a god’s-eye view shot and ringing of celestial bells. Instead, a sudden crane shot takes us up over the graveyard, with a final tilt up to cloudy, impenetrable skies, and then returns to silent, black closing credits. We are left to find meaning for ourselves – if there is any.

If you need an uplift after watching Stations of the Cross, I recommend Louise Ní Fhiannachta’s daring, comic short Rúbaí (2013), about an 8 year-old Irish girl preparing for confirmation. Her joyous, life-loving spirit has not yet been crushed by the Catholic Church or her mother. Not only does she question and utterly discombobulate her priest during catechism, but defiantly rejects the life they have mapped out for her.

References

Schrader, Paul (2017) ‘Revisiting Transcendental Style in Film’, YouTube lecture for TIFF based on his 1998 book

Wheatley, Catherine (2016) ‘Present Your Bodies: Film Style and Unknowability in Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes and Dietrich Bruggemann’s Stations of the Cross’, Religions,Volume 7, Issue 6

Written by Shabanah Fazal – see her other posts on this blog

King Lear (Korol Lir, USSR (Russian) 1971)

Juri Jarvet as Lear sitting by the fire in his court.

(This post is written by Shabanah Fazal and posted by Roy Stafford)

King Lear is Shakespeare’s tale of an ageing monarch who makes a spectacular error of judgement by dividing his kingdom through a ‘love trial’ of his three daughters, unleashing chaos in the land. There are countless film versions, some of the best known like King of Texas (US TV film, 2002), A Thousand Acres (Iowa, US 1997), Ran (Japan 1985), transplanting the story to radically different soil.  Peter Brook’s monochrome film (1971) is considered by many the definitive screen version of Shakespeare’s original. In his absurdist vision, the key word ‘Nothing’ reverberates throughout – from the black silence of the opening titles to the apocalyptic waste of the ending. Most British stage and screen productions have followed in this tradition of nihilistic despair, recent ones taking the theme of breakdown further by retreating to the small, dark, senseless space of an old man’s dementia-ridden head.

It was refreshing therefore recently to discover Grigori Kozintsev’s gloriously expansive Russian language film Korol Lir. Released the same year as Brook’s film and superficially similar in its monochrome vision of tragic destruction, it deserves to be far better known: Kozintsev offers a more coherent, richer and arguably uplifting reading of Shakespeare. The film is available on DVD but only a cinema re-release could truly do justice to this wide-screen epic. A contemporary of Eisenstein, Kozintsev was an experimental film-maker who learned his craft in the great age of montage, with the creative theatre and film school FEKS; in his later career, he developed into a visually imaginative but more mature artist with a (socialist?) realist style. He was also a Shakespeare scholar with a deep interest in his tragic ‘philosophy’, so it is no surprise that in the 1940s he staged and later filmed his two darkest tragedies Gamlet (1964) and Korol Lir (1971). Kozintsev declared he wanted ‘to create a visual poetry with the same quality as that of Shakespearian verse’ (dialogue with Ronald Hayman, 1973) – so dramatically cut Shakespeare’s lines (the film runs to only 2 hours 11 minutes). Achieving his goal was made easier because of his long and close collaboration with translator Boris Pasternak and composer Dmitri Shostakovich on productions of Shakespeare. Shot on the shores of the Baltic, both films are remarkable for their powerfully symbolic elemental imagery, luminous clarity of vision and epic – often monumental – shot-making. There is no finer example than the breathtaking scene in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears on the castle battlements.

Much of the rich ambiguity of Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films derives from the Soviet context: they share the quality of ‘double-voicing’ (Bakhtin) that characterises much of the art produced in a repressive state. That is to say, they can be read as innocent ‘art’ or allegorically, as political critique of the Soviet system. In turn, audiences were primed to look for encoded meanings – each one potentially a small act of resistance. To the distant pre-Christian English setting of King Lear, Kozintsev added another layer of strangeness, using some foreign actors dubbed into Russian – for example, lead actor Estonian Juri Jarvet. As a truth-hating tyrant whose actions ruin his country (symbolised by his tearing up of an enormous map of the nation), Lear stands for oppressive Soviet leadership, from Stalin to Brezhnev. However, Kozintsev suggests he is doomed from the start: unlike the great bearded patriarch of the silent era Lear (1909) or Patrick Stewart’s heroically masculine ‘King of Texas’, gaunt-faced Juri Jarvet cuts a frail figure. For all the actor’s passionate performance, this Lear is dwarfed by his throne, his outsize royal garments and ridiculously sculpted hair collapsing around him as he hurtles towards his downfall. In presenting the all-powerful leader as almost comically impotent from the start, Kozintsev creates pity for Lear and but also stirs the political hopes of his audience.

Grigori Kozintsev

Like many Russian artists who saw Shakespeare as a radical and their contemporary, Kozintsev understood instinctively the deeply political nature of a tragic vision that links the fate of the individual to the nation. From the opening frames to the great final battle, this feels like a biblical epic. In his re-imagining of the play, Kozintsev presents  the poor multitudes on the move, devotedly following Lear on his journey all the way to Dover – crowds that perhaps represent the peasantry or proletariat, the dispossessed and alienated living in internal exile. Lear has to be reduced to their level, to a state of Nature, to ‘ . . . a bare, forked animal’ before the process of regeneration can begin.  At this climactic point of the narrative, Kozintsev makes Nature his central character. In a series of intensely atmospheric scenes Ionas Gritsius’ savagely beautiful cinematography captures the disorder both in Lear’s mind and kingdom. In the critical storm scene, there is an epic sweep to his camera work, which takes us to vast windswept wastelands where high overhead shots pick out a tiny figure illuminated in the darkness – Lear raging pitifully against the elements.  Such shots are reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Macbeth and Othello, but Welles’ use of chiaroscuro is more noirish. In this scene wild grunting boars, horses, and bears charge restlessly through desert spaces, amid an enhanced soundscape of violently rustling trees and howling winds. The film abounds in such primitive imagery and Kozintsev does not flinch from the darkest side of human nature. After the unimaginable cruelty of Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out, he reflects Lear’s verdict that he has spawned sexually rapacious ‘tigers, not daughters’ by cutting to invented  scenes of Goneril and Edmund having sex, followed by the necrophiliac horror of Regan not so much kissing as devouring the face of her dead husband Cornwall.

Despite its darkness, there are other striking features that make this a politically engaged film. Firstly, Kozintsev gives the Fool (Oleg Dahl) a much greater role than usual, exploiting his ambiguous status as state servant but licenced truth-teller to represent him partly as the artist, and partly as the ‘holy fool’ of Russian tradition. He introduces him to the play earlier than does Shakespeare, showing Lear from the start sheltering him under his cloak and patting him on the head, like a surrogate child, a reminder of the loving daughter Cordelia he has unjustly banished. Crouching in dark corners, the Fool is a loyal dog growling out his riddling wisdom to Lear. From the opening titles, Shostakovich uses the motif of jaunty pipe music to signal the Fool’s artistic purity and role as the voice of Shakespeare’s conscience. Even though the playwright has him fade away well before then, Kozintsev keeps him till the final frames, when he is kicked aside like a cur but rises defiantly to play Russian folk tunes that hint of hope to the audience.

Cordelia’s marriage to the King of France with the overt Christian symbolism

Secondly, Kozintsev makes overt use of Christian references in a pagan world that can be taken for the atheist state. Shostakovich begins with highly emotive religious chants, reflecting the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church as a force of resistance in the later Communist era. His orchestral score then builds to a thundering discordant climax as Lear ascends prophet-like to the top of his castle to address his kneeling subjects, only to spew ugly fire against his daughters. To emphasise that Lear is the false god of the old order, Kozintsev cuts straight to a new order in which the forces of good are aligned with Christian imagery of resurrection: Cordelia’s marriage to France (off-stage in Shakespeare’s play) takes place before a great wooden cross. He underscores this idea through the use of a fabric motif; first seen in the background to the opening and closing titles is a threadbare coarse-weave fabric that symbolises both the ruination of Lear’s land and its salvation. This becomes clear when Gloucester’s innocent banished son Edgar (disguised as Poor Tom the beggar) uses such a fabric to cover his nakedness, but later gives up even this meagre rag to bind his broken staff into a cross marking his father’s grave. Fire that is first foregrounded burning in Lear’s hearth eventually becomes a raging holocaust, evoking perhaps the destruction of two world wars, Hiroshima and Vietnam. But the effect is cathartic and perhaps revolutionary: the whole social order must be razed to the ground for a better one to arise.  After the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, the camera takes us out wide to birds flying over the sea, signifying not death but liberation. Ending on images of sacrifice and redemption might in a western context seem almost reactionary, but here can be read as resistance.

Faced with the everyday threat of personal and nuclear annihilation, for the artists of Brezhnev’s Cold War USSR despair might have seemed a western luxury; on the other hand, engagement was an act of survival. Some might dismiss the film as rather traditional, but for me it is precisely Kozintsev’s commitment to a search for meaning that makes his version of King Lear particularly appealing in our jaded postmodern age. His achievement was to marry poetry and politics using the moving image – the ultimate light illusion – to conjure something from Shakespeare’s ‘Nothing’.

The film is officially available from Lenfilm (with English subs) in HD (but a slightly-squeezed aspect ratio on YouTube:

Written by Shabanah Fazal – see her other posts on this blog