My Hindu Friend is the last film of Hector Babenco (1946-2016). It was screened at the Montreal World Cinema Festival in 2016 where Willem Dafoe won the Best Actor award for a role based on Babenco’s life experiences. In the same year it was on release in Brazilian cinemas but nowhere else. Now it has been acquired by Rock Salt Releasing for a release in the US on 17th January. On that date it will start a theatrical presentation lasting one week in selected cities ((NY, LA, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, Minneapolis, ATL, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago) and will be available from a wide range of digital sites.
At first I was worried that I might find the film difficult to review since I don’t really like medical dramas and I thought that the narrative was primarily concerned with the director’s own experience of cancer treatment. Once the film started, however, it quickly became clear that the impact of cancer on Diego Fairman (Willem Dafoe) was not the whole narrative and also that it wasn’t going to be presented as a social realist or Hollywood realist drama. There are other challenges for the contemporary viewer, but first I need to explain some of the background to Hector Babenco’s career since the film carefully weaves the director’s experiences throughout the narrative.
Hector Babenco was born in Argentina to parents with Eastern European Jewish heritage in 1946. Aged 18 he moved to Europe and found work in the film industry ranging from appearing as an extra in features to roles as Assistant Director. In 1969 he settled in Brazil (in Sao Paulo) and became established as a director, first of documentaries and then features. In 1981 his film about the ‘marginal’ street children of Brazil, Pixote, won him international recognition. In 1985 his profile was raised once again with the international success of Kiss of the Spider Woman adapted from the novel by Manuel Puig and starring the Hollywood actor William Hurt. After this Babenco made more films with Hollywood stars in North America and also films set in Latin America. Many of his films are referenced in the different sequences of My Hindu Friend as well as aspects of his personal life. He was married four times. He was what some commentators called a ‘womaniser’ but he was also recognised as an artist interested in social issues and marginal groups.
My Hindu Friend begins with Diego and his partner Livia (Maria Fernanda Cândido) learning from Diego’s doctor (and friend) that his lymphoma has spread and that the only possible treatment is now a bone marrow transplant for which he must travel to Seattle. The donor will be his estranged brother Antonio (Guilherme Weber). From this point the narrative develops partly as family melodrama and partly as an imaginative autobiographical memoir. The medical treatment makes possible drug-induced dreams and gradually a fantasy narrative takes hold with scenes depicting how Babenco was seduced by the movies and how he got started as a filmmaker. Inevitably this includes sequences imagining the coming of death in filmic terms. His sense of himself as a story-teller is very important. The title ‘My Hindu Friend’ refers to the brief sequence in the narrative when Diego shares a recovery room in the hospital with a young boy who he helps distract by telling him stories. There is also a possible connection to Asian religious beliefs in the narrative but otherwise the title is misleading about the film’s content. The boy’s presence as a mostly silent figure is symbolic of the audience as a key part of creating cinema. But he does join Diego in re-creating a scene from a war movie.
The film makes direct references to Babenco’s love affair with cinema – to Laurel and Hardy with Ollie singing ‘Shine on Harvest Moon’ from The Flying Deuces (1939) and using Gene Kelly’s song from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) as the soundtrack for an erotic dance. Federico Fellini is name-checked as perhaps the best-known director who used his own biography in many films, but My Hindu Friend also reminded me of Yousef Chahine’s trilogy of films about his own life and the history of modern Egypt especially in An Egyptian Story (Egypt 1982) which also uses medical treatment as metaphor. Claude Lelouch is another director (also with Jewish heritage) who uses his own life experiences in a film like What War May Bring (Ces amours-là, France 2010).
Anyone who loves cinema should find enjoyment in watching My Hindu Friend. The challenge for audiences in 2020 may be that this is a film by a man approaching 70 depicting his slightly younger self and his love of women and struggles with his own sexuality. The narrative positions all of the female characters as helpers, carers or sexual beings realised through the male gaze. There are three sexual encounters in which the women are fully naked but Diego is positioned so that Willem Dafoe is never ‘full-frontal’. On the other hand, Dafoe’s performance is very strong and he must have prepared his body carefully for the shoot. Diego’s final sexual encounter is with ‘Sofia’, an actor and performance artist played by Bárbara Paz who was married to Hector Babenco from 2010 to 2014. Presumably they parted on good terms and she plays her role with gusto.
Babenco enlisted strong support to make his film. The music score is by the Polish maestro Zbigniew Preisner and the cinematography by the distinguished Brazilian, Mauro Pinheiro Jr. My Hindu Friend is an English language film made in Brazil. The largely Latin American cast speak accented English. I don’t think this is a problem. Here’s the new trailer:
Pain and Glory strikes me as an ironic title for what I loved as the most tender Pedro Almodóvar film I’ve seen. It sometimes seems that Almodóvar oscillates between films about men (some of which are directly autobiographical) and films about women (and therefore about characters that remind him of the female stars that he adored as a child). But it’s also the case that many of the films are about Pedro’s mother and the other ‘real’ women of his childhood and adolescence. Pain and Glory is in some ways reminiscent of Bad Education (2004) in that it focuses on the childhood experiences of a man who grows up to be a film director and his relationships with other men. But whereas in that earlier film, there is much anger and even violence, in this new film there seems to be acceptance, friendship and love as the filmmaker ages. I think anyone ‘of an age’ like Almodóvar – approaching 70 – will have an understanding of some of the emotions of the central character played by Antonio Banderas.
The outline plot of the film is relatively straightforward (no spoilers here). Salvador Mallo, the Banderas character is a 60 something man with various physical ailments who has lost his creative energy but who lives well in a beautiful apartment (beautifully designed with paintings, fabrics and bold colours) with a maid (an indigenous woman from Latin America?) and his former production assistant/manager Mercedes (Nora Navas) both regularly visiting him. One day he learns from an actor (played by Almodóvar regular Cecilia Roth) that one of his early films has been restored and that several cinemas want to screen it. Salvador is invited to join in a Q&A following a screening. The only drawback is that the cinema would like to invite both Salvador and the star of the film, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) – and the two men have not spoken since the film was completed more than thirty years ago. Salvador decides he must meet Alberto privately before any public meeting. Having decided to resurrect something from the past, Salvador also finds a way to re-visit his own memories so that we can experience moments of his childhood in which his mother Jacinta is played by Penélope Cruz. In the present, Jacinta is played by another stalwart from Almodóvar’s earlier films, Julieta Serrano.
Almodovar’s handling of the narrative drive is so accomplished that even though the pacing is sometimes quite slow, I was always completely engaged by the ‘action’ and never worrying or wondering what might happen next. I suspect that if it was possible to tear myself away from the screen all the events of the narrative would become predictable and many would turn out to have appeared in his films before. So there are priests (bad, as in Bad Education), a village scene with the women working (as in Volver), a beautiful young man to lust after, doctor’s waiting rooms, a cinema audience, films on TV etc. But none of this matters because the mise en scène is glorious, the performances are sublime, the music (by Alberto Iglesias) is great and the cinematography is by José Luis Alcaine. And most of all, I believe in what Salvador feels and what he does.
There are excellent pieces in Sight and Sound (September 2019) by Paul Julian Smith and Maria Delgado, both reliable and acute commentators on Spanish cinema. They have spotted things I couldn’t see on a single viewing and they are able to connect scenes in the film with contemporary political and social issues in Spain. I recommend them highly. For my part, I’m simply glad that Pedro Almodóvar is still making films and most of all that the films seem to get better each time. Whatever ‘blocks’ Salvador experiences as a director, they don’t seem to visit Pedro. I’ve seen friends’ enthusiasm for Almodóvar wax and wane over the years, but for me he has never failed. He is, as Paul Julian Smith, observed on the release of the film in Spain, the only filmmaker guaranteed to bring in audiences of all kinds in Spain with virtually no promotion. Penélope Cruz grows more beautiful with every film. If she and Banderas continue to be as good as this, I hope Almodóvar will be encouraged to keep going.
Pain and Glory opens in North America on October 4th. I hope it is a big hit there too:
There is a line in A Paris Education uttered by one film student to another referring to “a long whiney French film”. That’s quite a brave line in a film that lasts 136 minutes and presents characters in B+W CinemaScope talking endlessly about film and ‘love’ and occasionally staring hard out of the window or just looking blank and consumed by their own thoughts. However, for an audience supposedly steeped in French cinema this should be an interesting experience. But apparently not for all as several people walked out of the LFF screening before the end.
The director Jean-Paul Civeyrac is very experienced, having shot his first feature in 1997 and developed a career in which he taught at the leading French film school La fémis, becoming head of direction and then at the film school at Paris VIII University. He’s been around film students for a long time and knows how they tick. Drawing on his own experiences he constructed a script as a form of ‘autofiction’ and shot part of it in his own university. The story offers us Etienne (Andranic Manet) as an aspiring film student who arrives in Paris from Lyon and discovers he is sharing a flat with Valentina courtesy of a family contact. She is the first of several attractive women who might slide into his bed – something of an issue for Lucie, his girlfriend of six years left behind in Lyon. Etienne joins the film class and soon becomes known as an old-style cinephile who acquires two close friends, the sociable gay man Jean-Noël (Gonzague Van Bervesseles) and the intellectual bully Mathias (Corentin Fila). The narrative then meanders over the next couple of years during which Etienne attempts to make his course film and sort out his love life. A coda reveals what has happened to Etienne a few years after he has left Paris VIII.
I didn’t walk out of the film but I did struggle at times to be fully engaged by the narrative and the characters. This version of film school life seems quite laid-back. I’d gone into the screening wondering if the film would directly reference La nouvelle vague and the nearest it came to doing this was the ‘Rohmeresque’ nature of some of the encounters between young men and young women. One scene in particular seems to echo Rohmer’s My Night with Maud (1969) during which a debate about religion and morality in Pascal’s writing fails to lead to sexual congress. It was only later, reading some reviews, that I realised that the model for this kind of film is not the films of the Cahiers du cinéma group of New Wave directors, but the later directors Jean Eustache and Philippe Garrel. Eustache (1938-1981) was a ‘provincial’ like Etienne and his friends and his most celebrated work was The Mother and the Whore (La maman et la putain, 1973). This long film (219 mins) starred Jean-Pierre Léaud and Bernadette Lafont in a narrative which has some similarities to A Paris Education and has been celebrated as one of the best French films ever made – though it divided critical opinion when it won the Cannes Grand Prix. I haven’t seen any of the films of Eustache or Garrel. Several titles by the latter have recently screened on MUBI in the UK. If I had known these films I might have got more from A Paris Education.
I think perhaps that I found this new film too lacking in vitality, though I was impressed by all the young actors. The literary references are fine but I found the classical music score overpowering at times. The Press Notes carry a revealing interview with the director in which he reveals that the script was written quickly and shot just four months later – which ought to have given it the vitality that I didn’t find. He also explains that he saw Marlen Khutsiev’s Ilyich’s Gate (also known as I Am Twenty) a Russian film from 1965 in 2016 and that this was the inspiration behind the script. The Russian film was censored (cut in half) in the 1960s and not released in its full three-hour version until 1989. It deals with a young man of twenty returning to his Moscow neighbourhood after two years of service and arguing about life with his old friends. Wikipedia suggests the Russian authorities didn’t like the idea of young people thinking for themselves. It also suggests that the future directors Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky both play small roles in the film and that references were made to François Truffaut’s work by critics at the time. In A Paris Education, the three friends watch the film on Etienne’s laptop in his darkened bedroom. The reference to this film and the work of the earlier Russian filmmaker Boris Barnet suggest the careful inclusion of names from film history. This actually begins when we sit in on the first lecture Etienne attends – an Introduction to post-war Italian cinema during which the lecturer reels off a list of directors, two of which were unknown to me. She then challenges the class to name any directors of similar stature since the 1960s. This is the beginning of the antagonism between the would-be Tarantinos in the film class and the ‘true cinephiles’ represented by Etienne and his two friends. In the Notes, Jean-Paul Civeyrac tells us in a response to a question about the fervour of students for cinema:
. . . only a minority truly possess it. At that age, many of them are trying to find themselves or flirting with the film business and, if they carve out a place in it, they don’t direct. The fervour for cinema that features in A Paris Education is the one that drives anybody for whom making a film is an existential quest.
If you want to know if Etienne eventually makes it you’ll have to watch the film. I’m not sure if this film will get any kind of UK release, but if you get the chance to see it, I recommend reading the Press Notes first.
What is the status of Michelangelo Antonioni today? In the 1960s he was in some ways the archetypal figure of the European art director. His three English language films, Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1975) and The Passenger (1975) then transformed him into a new kind of celebrity artist. For older cinéphiles his great works might be the trilogy of ‘alienation’ films from the early 1960s, L’avventura (1960), La notta (1961) and L’éclisse (1962). But what about the 1950s? Antonioni was born in 1912, making him roughly a contemporary of Bergman (b. 1918) and Kurosawa (b. 1910), but unlike those two prolific filmmakers who were active in their film industries by the early 1940s, Antonioni’s progress is more hesitant. He co-writes A Pilot Returns with Rossellini in 1942 and directs eight documentary shorts between 1947 and 1950 before making his first feature, Cronaca di un amore (A Chronicle of Love) in 1950. Penelope Houston, editor of Sight and Sound from 1956, made the observation that unlike the Cahiers du Cinema writers who became filmmakers in La nouvelle vague or the Free Cinema directors in the UK who formed part of the British New Wave, Antonioni had no clear beginning, no celebrated first film and no clear ‘film movement’ identity. She quotes an interview in 1959 for Positif in which Antonioni explains that in 1943 he was directing a documentary about fishermen on the Po River – the same location used by Visconti for Ossessione, often quoted as the first neo-realist film in 1942. “Today, perhaps I would be cited in a discussion about the birth of neo-realism”, Antonioni suggests. (In Cinema: A Critical Dictionary Vol 1: Aldrich to King, Richard Roud (ed) 1980, Martin, Secker and Warburg.)
What then of La signora senza camelie?, one of three films that Antonioni directed or part-directed in 1953. Neo-realism was still a recognisable influence in Italy in the early 1950s and it certainly informs some of Enzo Serafin’s cinematography in the film. (Serafin worked continuously from 1942 and in 1954 shot Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia.) The narrative is familiar. Clara (Lucia Bosè) is a shop girl from Milan, an outstanding beauty who has been snapped up by a pair of film producers. They have put her into a mundane exploitation film and when the narrative of La signora senza camelie begins she is waiting in the street outside a cinema where her debut is being previewed in a public screening. These opening shots seem to promise distinctive location shooting. What follows certainly has neo-realist moments, especially because of the cinematography, but it is primarily a melodrama and in generic terms, a film about the film ‘business’ rather than about filmmaking per se – though there are some direct comments about performance. There are ‘pre-echoes’ of certain well-known films. It’s difficult not to think of Godard’s 1963 Le mépris (1963) in which an American producer wants to put Brigitte Bardot into a ‘classical drama’. In La signora senza camelie, Clara marries one of her producers, Gianni (Andrea Checchi) who installs her in a beautifully furnished by soul-less apartment and then casts her in a version of Joan of Arc. She goes to the Venice Film Festival and is humiliated when the film fails. In the meantime she has linked up with another hopeless lover, a diplomat who is not prepared to risk being seen with her publicly. She would be better off with the experienced actor Lodi played by Frenchman Alain Cuny, who in one scene teaches her how to make love for the camera. The film’s title presumably refers to The Lady of the Camellias or simply ‘Camille‘, a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas, an opera, La traviata, by Verdi and then a film made famous by Greta Garbo. Poor Clara has none of the mystique of Camille (though possibly all of the beauty).
La signora senza camelie is very much a film about mise en scène – the apartments, the beautiful clothes – and the cinematography. I’m sure there is music too – Clara sings in her début, but I didn’t really notice the music. Cinecitta, the great studio complex in Rome plays a role in the closing stages of the narrative, as do the paparazzi of Rome, ever-present in the studio canteen. Earlier, the two producers (the other one is much more pragmatic) first find a beautiful house belonging to the aristocracy and then fail to make use of its possibilities. Overall, I found the film beautiful to watch (and that includes the luscious Lucia Bosè, who I realise was in the Spanish film The Death of a Cyclist a couple of years later – she married a Spanish bullfighter). The narrative is in one sense quite cynical and in another an exposé of the celebrity culture of Italian cinema and what eventually came to be known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’. Fellini’s films make much more sense when you’ve seen this film and perhaps Visconti’s Bellissima (1951) the more ‘neo-realist’ film that traces the story of a mother’s attempt to get her child into the film world. I feel I appreciate Antonioni’s skill more than I did before, but he still feels a bit like a ‘cold fish’.
Like all Italian films of the period the dialogue is dubbed. I was surprised that this is very badly done at one point.
I watched the film on MUBI. It is currently available on a Masters of Cinema dual format DVD/Blu-ray. In the clip below (no English subs) we see Clara and Lodi playing the love scene in her second film. The director is the man in charge, though both the producers are also on set. What are those extras, seen through the window, doing outside?