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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Chronicles of World Cinema II : "The Mirror"

(Originally published here at

The second on my world cinema series is a film by Iranian director Jafar Panahi. Western audiences know Panahi, most recently through his 2006 film “Offside” which depicted the efforts of two Iranian girls to get inside a football stadium, disguised as men. This film created enough of a buzz in the Western critical circles, and also bagged the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. (Although Panahi had in the past, been honoured at Cannes and Venice among others)

This post, however, is not about Offside, but about one of his earlier works, “The Mirror”(1997) which I saw last week. “The Mirror” begins with a little girl, Mina(Mina Mohammed-Khani), who is desperately hoping for her mother to come pick her up after school. She has one arm in a sling, her school is located in a fairly crowded locality in Teheran, and she isn’t really sure about the way home.

As the clock ticks by and no one comes for her, Mina sets off on a journey which will take her through the heart of the city, and us, for the camera remains faithfully, unmovingly fixed on her. Mina is stubborn, fidgety, and walks a tricky line between being intrepid and vulnerable. Did I mention she has the most angelic singsong you could ever hope to hear? If you were one of those who were wowed by the cute-as-a-button-kids in another Iranian film, Majid Majidi’s “Children of Heaven”, chances are you’ll love this one, too.

But I digress. As Mina begins her quest to reach her home, she encounters the big bad world in all its scary sights and sounds. Using the wide-eyed child’s point of view as a template, Panahi paints a compelling portrait of Teheran. For a movie which has very few cuts, there is little shortage of action as Mina encounters different sorts of people along the way. The conversations which she listens to are sometimes a surprisingly lucid insight into some of the pangs of modernized Iran. One scene in particular, where she listens to an old lady is particularly touching. The old woman laments the fact that she is not allowed to spend time with her Americanized grandchildren, because her son thinks she’ll “spoil their accent”.

Just when you think the film has reached a plateau of sorts, something very surprising happens. Little Mina Mohammed-Khani gives us her best pout, takes off her sling and declares that she’s “not acting anymore”. A group of men with cameras and stuff, ostensibly Panahi and his crew try to persuade her to return, but Mina has decided that enough is enough. This meta-fictional twist takes the film into a completely new direction, and needless to say, makes it all the more ambitious.

Upto this point, this looked very much a film in the hysterical realism, or as they say in cinematic lingo, neo-realist mode… but this took the film into altogether different territory.
From then onwards, the little girl is the real Mina in some scenes, and the reel Mina in others, only both of them seem to be equally clueless about how to reach home! The crew of the film follow her as she tries to make it on her own. At some point, her microphone seems to get disturbed, which brings into play all the street noises of Teheran, lending an intriguing edge to the already unconventional narrative.

Writers like Italo Calvino (If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, read my review here), Vladimir Nabokov(Pale Fire) and Thomas Pynchon(The Crying of Lot 49) have displayed the immense power of meta-fiction(fiction that is aware of its fictional status, i.e. a self-conscious bit of narrative) if done properly. In cinema, the names which come to mind off the top of my head are Barton Fink by the Coens,the horror thriller Donnie Darko and the Spike Jonze-directed Adaptation by the celebrated writer Charlie Kaufman.(Kaufman seems to have a weakness for this : see his debut directorial venture Synechdoche, New York, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman)

“The Mirror” is, ultimately a beguiling statement on the nature of art, and the subtle tricks it often plays on the mind.Believe me, you wouldn’t want to miss this for anything.

Later this week : More on Aki Kaurismaki, and a documentary on one of my favourite comic-book authors, Alan Moore.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Chronicles of World Cinema I: The Man Without A Past

(Originally published here at

(Been home for a full five days now….. time to kick-start the blog again)

When we finally got rid of the friendly neighbourhood cable guy and his spider-web of wires, hooks and assorted paraphernelia; and switched to a DTH service, the best thing which came with it was the World Movies channel. Now, this was a channel dedicated to showing quality cinema from around the world to an Indian audience. A couple of days back, I saw this brilliant Finnish film called “The Man Without A Past” by director Aki Kaurismaki.

Like many other great films, this one, too has a very simple story. A man, newly arrived in Helsinki, gets so severely beaten up, that he develops amnesia. The rest of the film deals with his attempts to start a new life and try and find out more about his past. This leads to some darkly funny, sometimes poignant scenes. The central character is played by the late Finnish actor Markku Peltola.

Several things about this film impressed me to no end. Kaurismaki doesn’t go for big flashy camera movements, but he does just enough to make sure the net import of the scene is conveyed to the audience. His films are people with funny, sometimes spooky characters with seemingly complex inner lives. In this film, you have a faux-sinister cop with a brutish dog he keeps threatening M(the titular character) with. When asked the name of the dog, he says in a deadpan whisper, “Hannibal”. Later on, we are told that Hannibal, is in fact a female, and a pretty docile and clingy one at that.

A couple, Nieminen and his strong, independent wife Kaisa take M in and help him get back on his feet. Nieminen is the kind of gently funny character who embodies the spirit of the film, yet you cannot help but think that there is much more to him than meets the eye. In fact, (and this goes for most of the film) Kaurismaki’s work tends to resemble avant-garde theatre more than anything else. The scenes where M starts to live in a container and makes friends with others like him are superbly done. M gets help from the Salvation Army, and even starts to go out with one of the officers there.

Kaurismaki likes his music, and indeed, many crucial or particularly poignant moments in the film are marked by distinctive music. In this film, music is also an important plot device as M starts to manage and organize rock’n'roll concerts in the neighbourhood with some of his Salvation Army friends. (Remember the the three roving balladeers in Dev D? )

Without giving out spoilers, I’ll say that the manner in which M discovers his past and the action which ensues is unlike anything else you would have seen. I thought that in a film like this, there was no easy way to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion, without seeming to be contrived or over-written. But Kaurismaki’s treatment completely floored me.

You’ll find it hard to categorize the film, and I’ve got a sneaky feeling this is true for Kaurismaki’s body of work as a whole. There are existentialist moments on display here, a dash of Thoreau when M turns backyard farmer. The delightfully quirky side-characters brings to mind the Coens, and the overall humanity which pervades every minute of the film has something of Ray about it. This is heady company, but one which Kaurismaki deserves, I feel.

After finishing the film I found out that it won the Grand Prix, the second most prestigious award at Cannes, and was also nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.(Kaurismaki refused to attend the ceremony in protest against the US, which was in a state of war at the time)
UTV World Movies is, in fact, screening more of Kaurismaki’s work, every Saturday night, all this month, and there’ll be plenty of repeats, too.(I caught this one on the second repeat, I believe) I’ll be sure to catch all of them, and I urge you to try and catch’em, too !