The title ‘Old Stone’ is a play on the English translation of the Mandarin name Shi Lao, a taxi driver in a ‘third tier’ city in Eastern China. Impressively played by Gang Chen, Shi is the unfortunate man caught up in the scandal of road accidents in contemporary China. When a drunk passenger pulls his arm and causes him to knock over a motor-cyclist, Shi foolishly forgets about the ‘proper procedures’ and takes the injured man to hospital where he undergoes emergency surgery and then falls into a coma. Shi then finds himself liable for all the hospital bills. The taxi company’s insurers won’t pay out because Shi moved the injured man (and therefore what caused his subsequent condition cannot be determined). The police won’t release Shi’s taxi or an accident report.
The sensible course for Shi would be to tell the man’s family that he has no money. As soon as Shi’s wife realises that he is paying hospital bills ever day, she closes their joint account and distances herself from him (she runs a children’s nursery). I won’t spoil the narrative further but clearly this situation can’t go on. Gradually Shi is moved to take drastic action. In reality, those who cause motor accidents in China are sometimes driven to running over the victims again and fleeing. The financial penalty for causing death on the road is less than the cost of paying insurance bills. Old Stone will eventually become a form of film noir in which Shi is the doomed man. As his name implies, Shi is stubborn and obstinate in maintaining his responsibility – he remains true to a collectivist spirit which has been lost in China’s headlong rush into ‘modernity’. Eventually however he is going to be forced into desperate measures.
Writer-director Johnny Ma left Shanghai for Canada aged 10 and returned to work in New York and Shanghai after graduating in 2010 from Columbia. Old Stone was made by a mixed Chinese-Canadian crew and lensed by Leung Ming-Kai from Hong Kong on location in China. At a concise 80 minutes this is a tightly edited and very effective slice of social realism morphing into a film noir crime story. It is remarkable as a first feature. I was reminded of both a Fifth Generation film like The Story of Qui Ju (Zhang Yimou, 1992) and a Sixth Generation film like Beijing Bicycle (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001). Both these films take a simple premise in which a working-class character seeks some form of justice in the face of bureaucracy and a changing society and, as the title of the second implies, they draw inspiration (directly or indirectly) from neo-realism and films like Bicycle Thieves (Italy 1948). Neo-realism also offers the possibility of melodrama and the noirish ending of Old Stone reminded me of a tragic sequence in Rocco and His Brothers (Italy-France 1960). In North America, the legal problems around car accidents might lead to the arrival of ambulance-chasing unscrupulous lawyers and in Carancho (Argentina 2010) Pablo Trapero explores similar forms of criminality around car crashes in Argentina. This is a universal issue effectively used in this new form of independent cinema in China (i.e. ‘new’ in the sense of the mixed crew and the tighter edit).
I feel I must also say something about the look of Old Stone. When the film began I struggled for a moment when plunged into the middle of a street scene. It struck me that some films seem made for a smaller screen. At times the image looked very grainy when seen close on the large Vue screen. I wondered if it had been shot on 16mm, or perhaps post-produced to give that effect. Either way it enhanced the sense of the neo-realist approach. By contrast Ma also offered us lush shots of treetops blowing in the wind, seemingly as abstract images but later revealed as associated with the film’s finale. Again these images struck me as reminders, first of the start of Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (no connection I could spot, except that they are both enigmatic) and, more directly, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (South Korea 2003) – a film mixing social and political commentary with a crime investigation by a disorganised and corrupt police team.
Old Stone has impressed at various festivals with Nominations and Prizes. It will definitely be released in North America and I recommend it. Here’s a good trailer.
Court is a singular film and one of the most interesting and, despite being disturbing in its exposure of injustice, most enjoyable films released in the UK in 2016. It has been a prizewinner at festivals around the world and in 2015 was selected as best film in the Indian National Film Awards. Released by the independent distributor ‘day for night’ you can trace its journey across the UK on the company website. If you are in the UK there are still a couple of dates left on its tour. Don’t miss it! Court was released in North America in 2015 by Zeitgeist Films and is now on iTunes in the US.
Court is the first feature film by Chaitanya Tamhane. It’s an impressive production that is the result of meticulous research and preparation. Tamhane takes aim at the Indian judicial system, but also exposes issues of social class and caste. There are many Indian films that feature court scenes but these are usually high profile cases and the court procedures are only seen for a short time. No One Killed Jessica (India 2011) and Guilty (Talvar, 2015) are two recent films that have explored high-profile cases with the attendant interest of the Indian media. After lengthy research and observation of a local court, Tamhane decided to base his story on what happens in a ‘Sessions Court’ in a Mumbai district where cases are usually mundane with little interest by the media. As the name implies, these courts should deal with criminal matters within a single session, but in practice the use of adjournments and the culture of Indian bureaucracy means that cases can drag on for several months or even years while the accused is detained on remand – unless bail can be agreed and surety found. Tamhane wrote a detailed script based on his research but what transpires on screen appears as though it is part of a documentary.
The approach adopted by Tamhane and his crew is very simple – and thus unconventional. Cinematographer Mrinal Desai (who worked second unit on Slumdog Millionaire – a very different kind of film) ‘simply’ plonks down his camera and films in long takes (and often framing in long shot) from that position. It seems simple but requires careful choreography of actors and well-chosen positions from which to view the action. It perhaps sounds dull and although the film is in ‘Scope with vibrant colours, there aren’t many exciting vistas of Mumbai. Yet it works and more than that it works well. The film opens by following a character from an informal schoolroom in a housing block across the city to a square in another suburb. The character turns out to be a performer who climbs onto a makeshift stage and launches into a song/performance poem with lyrics that encourage protest and resistance. During the performance the camera first moves in to frame just the performance itself and then pulls back and, just like the classic scenes in a Rossellini neorealist film like Rome, Open City (Italy 1945), we watch in alarm as police enter the square with officers carefully positioned in the crowd while their leader strides onto the stage and arrests the performer. He is Narayan Kamble, the accused man whose trial we are about to witness.
The same camera style is employed throughout and often it is highly effective in creating that sense of realism often termed the ‘reality effect’. The fixed camera means that we are invited to watch everything that is happening without the framing ‘directing’ us to look specifically at the characters in the central narrative. The camerawork is accompanied by an editing style that works in two ways. Sometimes scenes end quite abruptly and the story seems to leap forward to the next scene. On other occasions the camera continues to film when the characters in the main story have left the scene and sometimes the sequence begins before the characters appear. This means in court that we see the tail-end of one case and the beginning of others. The overall effect is to confirm that what we are following in the main story is just one element in the daily life of the city.
Many of the actors in the film are non-professionals. Some are friends or colleagues of the director. Although the courtrooms look like the ‘real thing’ filming is not allowed inside them so Tamhane built sets – you aren’t likely to notice. The film’s story appears to have been based on a specific real life case, but there are many similar cases.
Finding the human story
A key aspect of the film is the focus on each of the central players (except the accused) – and their lives outside the court. We follow the judge and the prosecution and defence lawyers. The object of this is not so much to drive the narrative forward as to fill in the social context of the trial. All of the central characters are ‘real people’ outside the court with the kinds of problems that everyone has. Crucially the three characters represent different social strata.
The crime at the centre of the court case is frankly ludicrous and the prosecution is based on an obscure and obsolete Victorian criminal code. The purpose of the legal action is to persecute social activists – the kind of community music/poetry activism depicted is real enough and is explored in the recent documentary Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011) by Anand Patwardhan which focuses on activism in Dalit communities (i.e. the lowest caste groups). Tamhane decides not to tell us about Narayan Kamble himself – apart from what is revealed in the court exchanges. The object is to expose the injustices and bureaucratic incompetencies of the court system. The ‘humanity’ of the film comes partly through the almost surreal humour that underpins certain scenes. Tamhane does not directly undermine any of his characters. Instead he invites the audience to come to their own conclusions (though he does decide what to show as well as how to show it).
The importance of language
The film uses four languages. The official languages of the court are Hindi and English. However, the working-class Mumbai communities use the local language Marathi (which, incidentally, has quite a strong local/regional film culture) which is allowed in court. The defence lawyer is a middle-class, upper caste man who takes the case much like a pro bono lawyer in North America. At home he speaks Gujarati with his family, but in court he speaks English – and is seemingly at a disadvantage with important defence witnesses who speak only Marathi. He speaks the local language but not fluently. Sometimes, characters use phrases from different languages in the same sentence – a common feature of Indian cinema. Do the judge and the prosecution counsel have an advantage in speaking three languages in court? Mumbai attracts migrants from across India so in some cases witnesses may not speak any of the three languages of the ‘Bombay’ court (as it is still officially known). The court system is clearly out of date and needs reform. The language question suggests that one of its chief problems is the lack of equal access to quite literally ‘speak’ in court.
The language of the judicial system is English and the archaic laws were introduced under the British Raj. They are now being used by Narendra Modi’s government to curtail the actions of political activists in much the same way the British curtailed political activity in the early 20th century. The three legal figures in court are all in one sense ‘middle-class’ which is a difficult concept in Indian society and in practice they live very different lives. The defence lawyer inhabits a global world of delicatessens and Western music bars with an income boosted by family wealth. The judge is part of a clubbable local community with its outings and social events. The prosecution lawyer has perhaps the most difficult job in managing both a professional life and her family – but this in turn perhaps makes her harder on the people she prosecutes. In the UK she might be a lower middle-class Tory, especially hard on working-class activists.
Court, in its quiet way, dissects and exposes the workings of contemporary India. It’s essential viewing.
The filmmakers discuss how the film came into being:
Jafar Panahi’s film opened on just 18 screens in the UK. It got some excellent reviews and its modest screen average doesn’t seem to have deterred subsequent bookings (you can find the next couple of weeks’ screenings here). It will travel around the UK but I still feel that it is something of an insult to one of global cinema’s finest filmmakers that his Berlin prize-winning film is treated in this way. Most of the bookings are in London and often the film shows just once. The UK’s three chains of supposedly specialised cinemas Picturehouse, Curzon and Everyman – are not showing this as a ‘circuit film’ even though it outstrips anything else they have to offer. Taxi Tehran is an unassuming masterpiece based on skill, intelligence, creativity and bravery – all attributes Panahi has consistently demonstrated in his ongoing satire on the absurdities of government control of artists in Iran. Don’t these clods ever realise what an alluring and joyful representation of Iranian culture filmmakers like Panahi are offering to the world? Perhaps this is the very reason why they try to silence him.
You may have read that Taxi Tehran consists entirely of footage taken by a dashboard camera in Panahi’s car as he drives through Tehran accepting passengers as if he was offering a taxi service. On a couple of occasions the footage is augmented by footage from his young niece’s digital still camera. If this sounds dull, believe me it isn’t. I won’t spoil the film by detailing all the ways in which the critique works. I’ll restrict myself to one example. When Panahi picks up his young niece outside her school, she comes on with a full diva stance – his car isn’t flashy enough for a famous director. She then tells him that she has to create a film for a school project and that the film must be ‘screenable’. It must conform to the criteria set down by her teacher. These ‘rules’ include all the proscriptions set out by Iran’s censors, including the ban on ‘sordid realism’ and any discussion of social, economic or political ‘problems’. Panahi’s film breaks all these rules in every mini-narrative which develops each time another passenger gets into his car. I admired Panahi’s earlier This Is Not a Film (2011) but it did involve some tedium and intellectual effort to ‘enjoy’. Taxi Tehran is pure cinema, start to finish as far as storytelling is concerned. If you can’t cope with the director as auteur you might find it irritating that several references to Panahi’s other films are important. Personally, I don’t care – Panahi the man comes across here as a lovely man I instantly want to take round to my local pub. He doesn’t have to drink alcohol if he doesn’t want to but I know he would make the lives of ‘ordinary’ people interesting. At one point, somebody asks him how they should find a story for a film. I thought he might use the neo-realist mantra. He doesn’t, but in practice he follows it all the time – stories based on the everyday encounters of people on the streets. Magnifique!
Rocco and His Brothers has been restored by the Cineteca di Bologna and the Film Foundation and it reappears complete with a couple of UK censor’s cuts now included. It’s quite simply magnificent, demonstrating Luchino Visconti’s great strengths of realism and melodrama as presented by a passionate opera director. It also features three central performances, each of which is worth the price of admission alone and which together keep our attention riveted to the action over nearly three hours.
Like many major films of the period this was an Italian-French co-production with two of the three leading roles taken by French actors. Alain Delon would go on to become one of the major French stars of the next twenty years and alongside Plein soleil in 1960 this was the film that established his international reputation. Annie Girardot was a major new female player in France in the 1950s, surprisingly ignored by the Cahiers critics-turned-filmmakers in the early 1960s but here getting the international exposure she merited. Visconti himself began his film education as an assistant to Jean Renoir in the 1930s before making Ossessione (Italy 1942), often regarded as the first neorealist film. I was reminded of Ossessione several times in watching Rocco and His Brothers, especially by scenes around Lake Como and by the bleakness of the outskirts of Milan. The story of the film is relatively straightforward. Rocco (Delon) is the third of five brothers and at the start of the film the four youngest brothers arrive with their mother in Milan to join Vicenzo the eldest, already trying to start a new life. The family comes from what is now known as Basilicata in the far South of Italy. The brothers struggle to establish themselves but eventually the second brother, Simone (Renato Salvatori), wins some fights as a professional boxer. This will eventually prove to be an unfortunate development as his success attracts the attention of a beautiful but dangerous prostitute, Nadia (Girardot). She later develops a rather different kind of relationship with Rocco and the resulting love triangle tears the family apart. Salvatori gives the third great performance. He has the look and the body of a boxer, something he trained for in preparation for the role. Several commentators have suggested that Coppola and Scorsese were both very impressed by Visconti’s film. Nino Rota wrote the score for Rocco and His Brothers and went on to work on The Godfather for Coppola. Salvatori’s performance was perhaps an inspiration for De Niro in Raging Bull?
The script is not without flaws. Visconti presents it in five chapters titled after each of the brothers in turn, but they don’t each get the same screen time and it is as if Visconti uses the other three characters to explore the sociological and cultural questions about the migration to the North while the melodrama rages around Rocco and Simone. Vicenzo marries the respectable Ginetta (an under-used Claudia Cardinale) and begins a family. Ciro, the fourth son, continues his education and becomes a ‘new worker’ – a skilled man at the Alfa-Romeo factory. The fifth brother is still a child at the beginning of the film and his main contribution (apart from running errands) seems to be to prompt Rocco into thinking of moving back down South to reclaim the family’s roots. (Rocco is named after San Rocco – the saint associated with the city of Potenza in Basilicata.)
In some ways the film’s story runs counter to the idea that the South is the source of corruption (and organised crime) and that the North is the new modern, ‘civilised’ Italy (a view partly derived from Gramsci). Geoffrey Nowell-Smith links Rocco and His Brothers to Visconti’s other ‘historical’ ventures, including his similarly long film on the tuna fishermen of Sicily, La terra trema (1948) and the rather different Senso (1954) set at the time of the Austrian loss of Northern Italy in 1866. It’s fascinating to read Nowell-Smith’s 1967/73 ‘Cinema One’ book on Visconti some forty years later. He points out that Delon is both ‘wrong’ as a peasant from the South, and as the boxer who is drawn into the fight game by his brother’s actions – but also very ‘right’ as the seemingly weak, puny character who has great strength in his convictions. Smith also recognises that Rocco is actually much more concerned about his traditional view of the family than he is about the safety of Nadia. There is great complexity in the triangular relationship of the melodrama and it requires analysis and reflection to work through the links between the two types of drama. Max Cartier as Ciro doesn’t have Delon’s star power. In a different film his performance would have worked well. Here he comes across as a vehicle for statements of aspiration and his action in exposing his brother’s crime seems like a betrayal of family. In a different way the high melodrama performance of the Greek actress Katina Paxinou (an acclaimed international theatre star) as the mother of the family works in terms of the central melodrama but perhaps not in a neo-realist narrative.
I’ve noted that positions on Rocco and His Brothers have tended to change over time. Nowell-Smith in his entry on Visconti in Richard Roud’s Cinema, A Critical Dictionary in 1980 seems to have moved towards a more damning criticism of the melodrama narrative. He seems to feel that the problem with Rocco is that Visconti does not have a literary source which might ‘reign in’ his melodrama and opera tendencies. Other critics have in fact tried to find literary sources that might have influenced Visconti, including Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. Part of the problem for critics has been that the films of Fellini and Antonioni from the same rich period of Italian cinema have to some extent pushed Visconti into the background. My own preference would always be for Visconti and I think it’s time his work was re-evaluated. Many of Visconti’s films are not ‘in print’ as either cinema prints or DVDs in the UK and this makes it difficult. However, Rocco is part of the Masters of Cinema DVD offer (2008) which also had Bellissima from 1952 but that now seems to be no longer available.
I haven’t mentioned Giuseppe Rotunno’s excellent cinematography on Rocco (and many of Visconti’s films) and he is listed as ‘supervising’ the visual qualities of the digital restoration at the age of 90. The other feature of the film which probably now gets more attention is the narrative importance of a homoerotic attraction that underpins Simone’s boxing career when he is taken on by a promoter who will eventually be drawn into the struggle between Simone and Rocco. That struggle in turn seems to involve more than just brotherly rivalry in its brutality and sexual humiliation. I’m going to have to watch the film again.
The original Italian trailer refers to the controversies in 1960s about the frankness of some scenes: