Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dayereh (The Circle).. Not A Review

Dayereh (2000)
Director: Jafar Panahi
Writer: Kambuzia Partovi
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 90 min
Country: Iran
Language: Persian
Color: Color
THE CIRCLE won the prestigious Golden Lion award at the 2000 Venice Film Festival.
Dayereh opens rather ominously with a black screen and the beginnings of the moaning of a woman that soon rise to screams. As a viewer you wonder is the woman is having a nightmare being assaulted or something far worse. The screams soon stop to be replaced by the sounds of an infant crying. The black screen slowly brightens to the dull grayish white walls of a door with a sliding window that is closed shut. A nurse slides it open and calls out a name. An old woman clad in a black chador approaches and is told “Congratulations.. It’s a girl!” and the window slides shut. The woman knocks tentatively on the window again and as it slides open a different nurse opens it. The woman asks about the gender of the child again and is once again told it is a girl. The old woman responds ”But the ultrasound said it would be a boy”.

The profound implications of the birth of a girl are seen on the deep lines of the woman’s mother, the news is to be passed on to the rest of the family. As the grandmother’s relative goes down the spiral stairs of the hospital to the street outside, she is asked if she has change to make a telephone call by two women, Arezou (Mariam Palvin Almani) and Nargess (Nargess Mamizadeh). And thus begins another narrative about these two women temporarily out of prison. They are trying to raise cash for a bus ticket to Nargess’s hometown a place that is supposedly paradise while they try to avoid the police. While Nargess does manage to buy a bus ticket, she does not board the bus what about Arezou? Nargess tries to see her friend Pari (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani) who has recently escaped from prison and is pregnant and unmarried and is trying to get an abortion. Unable to find anyone who can help (papers need to be signed for the procedure and permission granted by the woman’s husband), she roams the streets of Teheran and encounters a poor woman as she prepares to abandon her child (a girl) who she can no longer support.

This movie is characterized by a number of riveting yet seemingly random converging narratives, where one character’s story ends another one begins, but does it? There are motifs alluding to a circle throughout the film. The opening long continuous shot down the spiral staircase in the hospital, Nargess watching Arezou go up the circular staircase of an office building as they try to raise money, and the chilling closing scene.

I wonder if the director meant it as a metaphor for the seemingly hopeless existence of women under the rule of the conservative Islamic clergy where their lives are lived in the shadows of men no matter what their particular set of circumstances maybe. They are all treated the same, as something lesser then men whether they are simple every day tasks of life like buying a ticket, enduring lewd acts on the street which seemingly have no reprisals or the possibility that a woman’s liberty may be taken away even at the slightest hint of a lack of virtuosity.

There really are no redeeming male characters in this movie save Pari’s father who tries to protect his daughter from her brothers who seek her out with malice after her release from prison.

This movie has almost no professional actors which actually gives this movie a documentary like look thus making it more potent in its effect on the audience. Having said that, I have to say that the principal actors in Dariyeh portray their characters with stunning effect.

Dariyeh ends leaving you with a sense of discomfort and without a resolution. The film has been banned in Iran and serves as a reminder of the continuing discrimination and subjugation of women in that society. It is a gripping film not just for the subject that it deals with but also for anyone who is a fan of serious cinema. The art of film making which is always a challenge under the best of circumstances is positively Sisyphean in a country that restricts creative freedoms, which is why Jafar Panahi’s work needs to be applauded.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Golden Door Nuovomondo (2006)

Director:Emanuele Crialese
Release Date: 22 September 2006 (Italy)
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 120 min / Canada:112 min (Toronto International Film Festival)
Country:Italy / Germany / France
Language:Italian / English
I managed to catch the lovely (but rather long) Italian movie “The Golden Door” at the Bryn Mawr film institute some time ago. This film was also shown at the recent Newark film festival. This movie is written and directed by Emanuele Crialese This is a sweet movie that is visually very appealing with a dream like quality to parts of it. I have to admit that I am only vaguely aware of the things that immigrants in the early 20th century had to undergo to make it into this country (setting aside the challenges of making it once admitted). Also given the current debate over immigration policy in this nation of immigrants, and given my own background as an immigrant it was poignant watching this movie.

The movie opens with a windswept, boulder strewn vista and we see two men, bedraggled and barefoot scrambling up this rocky surface. As the close shots of the men’s bloodied feet give way to show them clamber up what looks to be the top of their climb, the camera pans farther away to reveal this beautiful but stark mountainside and that the men have ways to go. They eventually reach the summit, a shrine with a cross and we see small rocks in their mouths slightly bloodied (from being held there) that are now added to the small pile at its bottom.

Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) and his son Angelo (Francesco Casisa) place their offerings at the shrine and the father asks god for a sign if he should stay or leave their hard scrabble existence behind. A sign (of sorts) does arrive in the form of his other deaf-mute son Pietro (Filippo Pucillo) bearing photographs of what a new life in America purportedly looks like. Those have come to him by way of his grandmother Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi) who is performing an exorcism on one of the two women who have are going to America to be married.

Thus begins the story of a group of poor Italians from the mountains of Sicily on a crowded steamship to New York. Salvatore is a widower and is intrigued by a mysterious Englishwoman Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who he meets as they get ready to board the ship. She wants to marry someone for her to be able to enter America. Salvatore agrees. Lucy I thought with her modern world ways served as a metaphor for the new world that Salvatore and his family are aspiring to enter.

For the rest of the movie we travel along with the passengers on the ship, and learn about their dreams and their fears, experience their arduous journey and the realization that even if some of them make it to the shores of America they may not be admitted.

There is also a marriage brokering ceremony performed at Ellis island, which feels like an auction and your heart goes out to some of the young women as they are matched with much older men.

We see the various characters including Salvatore’s family face the various tests that they as potential immigrants must perform and the humiliations they must endure to be admitted to this country. They are forced to solve puzzles, perform mathematical tasks and undergo medical examinations in order to prove that they are "fit". So what will be the fate of the deaf-mute Pietro?
You have to watch this movie to find the answer to the final choice that Salvatore and his family must make that will change their lives in a very profound manner.

In addition to the opening sequences there are several scenes that stayed with me..

The movie has almost no background score for about the first 40 mins or so, and I found that somehow the movie was more riveting allowing me to focus on the “natural” sounds of the story. And the very effective use of sound (the rumble of the engines, the groaning of the metal innards of the ship) accentuate the mood of the movie which has excellent cinematography.

There is a brief interlude when two passengers in the bowels of the ship start to sing, their only accompaniment being the Tambourine, I could not understand the words but the song and the power of their emotions behind it touched me.

As the ship departs for the US there is a shot of all the passengers lined up against the decks looking out at the docks similarly lined with people (Were they the ones left behind? Or could not get on the ship?). As the vessel separates from land slowly we see the distance that separates these two groups of people grow. This felt like it was a metaphor for leaving behind the familiar to begin a perilous journey in to the unknown to find the promised land. And it is a promised land that the immigrants cannot even glimpse thru the fog, as much as they try and so the land of milk and honey that they imagine continues to be that and in this perhaps one can say that the movie has an ambiguous ending.

Watch it if you get a chance, this movie is a touching tribute to immigrants.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Newark Film Festival (Sept 6 -9, 2007) Newark, Delaware

The tiny town of Newark, DE is home to the University of Delaware. It was purely by chance that I found out that Newark has its own film festival last year. It’s apparently that time of the year again and they have a better roster of films this time around. The festival is now in its 3rd year and is organized by two film buffs , Barry Schlecker & Lisa Lucas. This event is small enough that I got a chance to talk with Lisa Lucas last year after one of the screenings and tell her how much I loved what she was doing.

For a complete list of films go here. The ones that I think I will try to watch are below.

I Have Never Forgotten You:

The Life & Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal
documentary / PG-13 / 1hr.45min.
For more than 60 years, Simon Wiesenthal dedicated his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals -- contributing to the prosecution of over 1,000 of them. Screened to sold out crowds at New York's Tribeca Film Festival, this documentary is narrated by Nicole Kidman.

No End In Sight

documentary / NR / 1hr.41min.

The first film of its kind to chronicle the reasons behind Iraq’s descent into guerilla war, warlord rule, criminality and anarchy, NO END IN SIGHT is a jaw-dropping, insider’s tale of wholesale incompetence, recklessness and venality. It is a powerful look into how arrogance and ignorance turned a military victory into a seemingly endless and deepening nightmare of a war.

The Lives of Others

drama / R / 2hrs.17min.

At once a political thriller and human drama, THE LIVES OF OTHERS begins in East Berlin in 1984, five years before Glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall and ultimately takes us to 1991, in what is now the reunited Germany. In the film, each character asks questions that we confront every day: how do we deal with power and ideology? Do we follow our principles or our feelings? More than anything else, it is a human drama about the ability of human beings to do the right thing, no matter how far they have gone down the wrong path.


Irish music drama / R / 1hr.26min.

A deceptively simple story of how a guy & a girl (we never learn their names) are drawn, over a few days, into each other's orbit, a romance — or is it? — played out in the songs they sing together; songs that will carry you away... an inspirational tale of two kindred spirits who find each other on the bustling streets of Dublin. One is a street musician who lacks the confidence to perform his own songs. The other is a young mother trying to find her way in a strange new town. As their lives intertwine, they discover each other’s talents and push one another to realize what each had only dreamt about before. ONCE is their inspiring story.

Gypsy Caravan

documentary / NR / 1hr.50min.

Shot by legendary cinematographer Albert Maysles, this dynamic musical documentary follows five Gypsy bands from four countries who unite for the Gypsy Caravan as they take their show around North America for a six-week tour, astounding every audience they meet. Their musical styles range from flamenco to brass band, Romanian violin to Indian folk. And with humor and soul in their voices, they celebrate the best in Gypsy culture and the diversity of the Romani people in an explosion of song and dance.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Septembers of Shiraz (Not A Review)

  • Hardcover: 340 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco (July 24, 2007)
  • Language: English

I first heard about Dalia Sofer’s debut novel on NPR (audio link here) and was intrigued by the storyline of the travails of an Iranian Jewish family in post-revolutionary Iran.

Book Description:
In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, rare-gem dealer Isaac Amin is arrested, wrongly accused of being a spy. Terrified by his disappearance, his family must reconcile a new world of cruelty and chaos with the collapse of everything they have known.
As Isaac navigates the tedium and terrors of prison, forging tenuous trusts, his wife feverishly searches for him, suspecting, all the while, that their once-trusted housekeeper has turned on them and is now acting as an informer. And as his daughter, in a childlike attempt to stop the wave of baseless arrests, engages in illicit activities, his son, sent to New York before the rise of the Ayatollahs, struggles to find happiness even as he realizes that his family may soon be forced to embark on a journey of incalculable danger.

This book took me a few pages of reading to really grab me although it has been referred to as a “page-turning literary debut”, but hey that is me. Perhaps the way the narrative unfolds had its purpose, for once it had my attention it became quite engrossing. The story is told in third person from the perspective of the four principal characters of the Amin family.. Isaac, his wife Farnaz, daughter Shirin and their son Parviz who is in far away Brooklyn studying architecture.

We watch the slow unraveling of the lives of this family. Isaac is a gems dealer. His crime is that he is Jewish and that he tried to live a life making money impervious to the excesses of the Shah. His services have been patronized by many of the ruling of the elite including the wife of the shah. His interrogator in prison is none other than Mohsen who is missing a thumb thanks to his time in the Shah’s prisons. In a rather dark twist Mohsen often brings his young son to prison, something we find out as Isaac hears the sounds of tiny feet above his cell. We watch this often surreal game between these two men and the reader will be left wondering what will become of Isaac. Will he be shot, for there seems no logic to the process by which prisoners are picked up for execution or will he succumb to the harsh conditions of his confinement which includes torture? Sofer describes this in language that makes the reader experience all the color that has drained from Isaac’s life in the little cell that is now his world.

Isaac has a lot of time to contemplate during his stay in the prison, his life, his past love, his marriage, the slowly growing distance between him and his wife and his relationship with his children. Some of what he feels towards Farnaz is complicated by the presence of Vartan Sofoyan in the prison. He used to be Farnaz’s piano teacher and he knew she felt more alive with him than anyone else he had seen. Farnaz on her part sense’s Isaac’s distance in how his eyes smile in response to Suzy, in a way she can no longer do. Suzy is the family’s dog.

There are crisscrossing narratives here and the reader is taken along different paths of the family.
Isaac’s wife Farnaz is left behind to carry on with life, look for Isaac and as much as she tries she cannot resolve the incongruity of her collapsing world with the normalcy around her…

“That the city is short by one man makes so little difference – stores still open their doors, schools ring their bells, banks exchange currency, grass-green double-decker buses- men on the bottom, women on top-follow their daily routes.”

Farnaz’s collection of objects from her visits around the world, appear to provide her some comfort and solace.

The attachment of these characters to their status and lifestyle (via their personal belongings) and their reason for not leaving Tehran is evidenced from the utterance by by Isaac’s sister and her husband “If we leave this country without taking care of our belongings, who in Geneva or Paris or Timbuktu will understand who we once were?”

The relationship of Farnaz with their housekeeper Habibeh is also explored in the larger context of the overthrow of the Shah, the resurgence of the Islamists, differences across class, and a sense of resentment and a desire for revenge against the rich regardless of their guilt in the situation that the poor find themselves in. What is the role of Habibeh and her son (who Isaac had given a job at his workplace) in Isaac imprisonment? How does one justify his removal of Isaac’s office equipment under the guise of “Safe keeping”?

Isaac’s daughter Shirin inhabits a world where she makes some surprisingly adult choices. Her belief that some how hiding the files of detainees (that she finds while at her friend Leila’s house whose father works for the revolutionary guard) might save those detainees from a cruel fate is brave yet will send a chill thru the reader. Shirin’s friendship with Leila is rather ironic because she is from a different class of people and it’s the closing of private schools that has even brought them together since public schools are all that remain open.

The theft of files is indeed discovered but is the perpetrator or the files? The disappearance of her father takes her toll on the little kid and she seeks succor in magical thoughts and the comfort of tea prepared for her by the schools nurse during her frequent visits to the school’s infirmary.

Isaac’s son Parviz’s life in Brooklyn is characterized by loneliness and his incomprehension as to why no one understands his situation, as he goes from thinking about going to architecture schools in Europe to now ending up in NY, strapped for cash and working in his Hasidic landlord Zalman Mendelson’s hat shop to help with the rent. I did wonder if his growing attraction to Rachel who comes from a completely different observant orthodox Jewish world was born out of his sense of displacement and detachment.

Sofer writing style is very effective in how she conveys gravity thru use of language. The passage where Farnaz first reveals to her daughter Shirin that Isaac is now in prison is just one example.

When her mother finally called Leila’s house and arrived, frantic, she kissed and hugged Shirin, in a way she hadn’t done in months, then leading her to the car, she said, ”Your father isn’t on a business trip, like I told you. He is in prison. But don’t worry prison is now routine.” She looked like she was about to cry, but Shirin wasn’t sure.
These were the only words spoken between them that night. Later in bed, Shirin thought of her Monopoly game, of that square in the corner with the distraught convict behind bars. In Monopoly, too, prison is routine. Even the best players have to leave everything and jump across the board to that dreaded box, missing a few turns while the same goes on.

The author captures both the mood of the city and her characters brilliantly.

She walks for a long time through the city. Above her, windows and balconies close, shutting out the cool September breeze. Summer is leaving, and with it the buzz of ceiling fans, the smell of wet dust rising through the air-conditioning vents, the clink of noontime dishes heard through open windows, the chatter of families passing long, muggy afternoons in courtyards, eating pumpkin seeds and watermelon.

Sofer’s writing is exquisite and her words give the characters a complexity, nuance and a rich depth. This book really grew on me, I loved it.

If you want to know a bit more about the author Dalia Sofer, here is a link to her interview in the NYTimes Sunday magazine.