Brother and Sister

Brother and Sister

Some of the greatest heartbreakers and tearjerkers in film history belong to the animation genre. Animation, a genre that was always meant to be targeted at younger audiences, has now become another way of delivering very emotional and thematically powerful subject matters to the big screen. Once upon a time, Walt Disney developed the idea of telling certain stories such as fairy tales by drawing them on paper and editing them out in order for them to be more accessible to children. Soon enough, animation turned into this massive genre that is now one of the most successful ones at the box office. Movies like UpFinding NemoInside Out were all major hits critically acclaimed by audiences, critics and award shows. However, these movies wouldn’t have the same character and body if not for a genre like anime, the Japanese animation. And one of the best examples to demonstrate this is Grave of Fireflies.

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Believe me, I’ve never been a fan of anime. I appreciate the imagination, the effort and true professionalism that go with it but usually its themes are way too distant for me. Hayao Miyazaki, for example, is in my opinion one of the very best directors and artists of the late 20th century, early 21st. His movies, such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro are grand accomplishments but I’ve never been fond of the supernatural and the way it is used to tell a certain story. It just doesn’t hit me where it should. However, I found Isao Tahakata’s Grave of Fireflies (1988) to be exactly what I wanted to see in order to become a fan of the genre. Don’t think it’s kids’ stuff. It’s not, and it was never meant to be made for children. It is the story of a fourteen year old Japanese boy and his younger baby sister who try to survive on their own in the war torn Japan of 1945. In the very first scene Seita, the brother, speaks to us in a sombre tone: “I died on September 21st, 1945.” That’s not the way to start off a kids’ movie, huh? It’s a warning. It’s a warning for the viewer not to dismiss the movie’s emotional quality just because of the way it is depicted. It is more of a challenge. And indeed, this film is just as powerful as any live action feature, be it Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice or even Platoon. It is extremely relentless in the way it keeps sending punches towards us and showing no mercy for its characters. Seita and Setsuko are on their own. And they have to fight to get through each day.

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There is something in anime that you can’t find in other animation features such as those that are nowadays produced by Pixar or Disney. Anime lives and breathes because of symbolism, imagery and texture. An object like a glass bottle or a cough drops tin can aren’t just simple objects. There is always something standing right behind them, offering a much more emotional message than most of those typical Hollywood ending speeches where all the characters find inner peace, harmony and comfort. In anime everything is meaningful. A simple gust of wind can symbolize loneliness, yearning or sadness. A house on fire can express a character’s anger, frustration or troubled past (similarly to most Kurosawa movies). Tahakata, the director, wanted to make his characters look and feel miserable in order for audiences to understand them better. This objective could only be achieved  with the use of animation and animation had to posses soft colors and a delicate palette so  that the contrast between childhood and war would be more visible. Fire is soft red, almost orange. Water is light blue, almost transparent. Every storyboard is so expertly crafted that there is a contrast in almost every frame, be it a contrast of perspective, of size or character. It’s always there and it proves exactly my point: that this kind of animation has the ability of expressing itself much better than most movies nowadays. Today we go watch a movie in the theater and most of the time we have no idea what is going on until the very end of it and not because of its complex message or twist ending but because of how it is presented to us. Most directors nowadays cut their movies up in such fashion that a frame lasts a maximum of 2-3 seconds whether as Alfred Hitchcock’s frames lasted  a good 6-9 seconds. In Grave of Fireflies the message is chaotic, wrapped in a cloud of fire and riddled with bullets by the omnipresent war but there is still something very calm and peaceful about it. About the way it feels when we look at it and the way it expresses its warmth in a terrifying manner. There is no rush. No alarm bell ringing in the distance. It’s quiet. A relationship between a loving older brother and a younger sister never felt more real.

By the end of it, you’ll be drowning in tears asking yourself how is it possible to make something this tough with the simple use of a pen and paper.

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Everything is a matter of…
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… perspective
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The Man Who Loved Poland

The Man Who Loved Poland

Andrzej Wajda has passed away a few hours ago.

You might not take it to heart. You might criticize him. You might doubt his talent and career. But I’m going to write a few words straight out of my heart because I feel like I should contribute in some way to the process of remembering one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and one of the greatest filmmakers to ever walk this planet. Wajda taught me a lot. Especially in Diamonds and Ashes he showed me and the world at the time what cinema was all about, what freedom and true patriotism are all about. He made politics look poetic and dramatic. He told the story of his own generation. A generation of men, that were ready to die for their country, who believed in freedom, who believed in a sunny future. Diamonds and Ashes was Wajda’s masterpiece. It was his legacy both as a filmmaker and as a human being. With just one film, he spoke out with the voice of millions. He broke rules, he jumped over obstacles and kept his head high. He loved cinema. He loved Poland. His name was Andrzej Wajda and hopefully his name will not be forgotten and his voice, his teachings, and his ways of dealing with the oppressive reality will be carried on by future filmmakers.

Thank you and good night.

Greyhounds and Priests

Greyhounds and Priests

Holy. What is holy? Is it the opposite of sinful? Is there a difference? Can you see the line that divides these two words? That sets them apart? Those are questions brought up in a movie that hit me hard last night. I was expecting a punch in the gut but not such a powerful one. To tell the truth, I had no idea what to expect; i knew just the title – The Club (2015), a Chilean masterwork directed by the up and coming Pablo Larraín (director of No (2012)). You might wonder, did I come up with any answers after having watched the movie? No, instead I came up with more questions. You see, the movie is all about Greyhounds and priests.

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Welcome to the club.

There is an isolated house on top of a hill of an isolated town by the sea in Chile. It’s yellow, pleasant to look at, it even has a garden and a beautiful view of the coast. However, don’t let the appearances fool you. Inside this lovely house you’ll find four priests with four dark pasts. Taking care of them is a retired middle aged nun. She also hides something. You think you’re entering the house of God, instead you’re entering the house of Satan. Father Garcia is our key to this terrifying place. He’s sent there to shut the whole place down after having gathered all the necessary evidence to send these priests to jail. The secrets that are about to torment Garcia, are also there to torment us. Father Lazcano was sent there to find peace within himself. Soon enough he falls dead with a gunshot wound to the head. Suicide. How about that? Garcia, however, is there to hunt down these four disgraced priests and the nun that is responsible for them. As he unravels the priests’ stories we begin to learn not only about them, but also about the bigger picture. Religion. Faith. Sin. Forgiveness.

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Larrain’s direction is ruthless. Filthy characters looking directly at the camera, opening themselves to us, the audience. Are they judging us? Pauses. Silences. Vivid descriptions of child molestation, anal sex, intimate confessions and pure hatred for the human kind. These priests all represent a unity. They carry their own stories and their own sins with them. Each one of them is different and Larrain highlights this fact by isolating them. The director’s framing of the images feel a lot like Antonioni’s in L’Avventura. Hell, the setting is not so different. Rocks. Sand. Fog. Rain. The camera pans across an extremely dimly lit landscape. There ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone, right? Yes, there is no faith to be found here. You can only contemplate the scary absence of it, because believe me; a world with no faith, no hope for a better tomorrow, no certainty for anything, is extremely scary. In fact, the priests’ only satisfaction, only remaining joy in life is betting. Betting on Greyhounds in dog racing. Instead of faith, they make money. Money that for them is absolutely worthless. Money that can’t bring the dead back to life. Money that can’t make up for their mistakes. And once they lose the possibility of betting too? What happens then? Larrain pushes us and the priests to the extreme. It would be too easy to pin down one main theme for this movie. You’d think, “oh sure, he’s talking about how the past haunts you.” No. He’s not. He’s going for something much more complex than that. The past plays just a supporting role. It’s the present that has the spotlight on this grim, menacing stage. Is the present our only judge? The priests stumble at each step, the weight on their shoulders is getting heavier and heavier. These are not men, they aren’t human anymore. They’re beasts. They’re shadows, ghosts. Ghosts that go through every day life just like they go through a religious ritual. There is nothing holy about them. There is nothing holy about what they used to represent when they were young.

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Suffocating the dark past.

You might wonder, then, why am I bringing up this movie all of a sudden? There are countless movies that touch upon similar subjects, for instance Doubt, Changeling, Spotlight, Sleepers and many, many others. However, this movie might be still the most riveting one among them. Why? Because it’s extremely quiet. There is a subtle vibration in every frame of it. We hear the waves crash against the rocky coast. We hear the homeless dogs howl in the streets. We hear the wind blow over the hill. Aside from that, there are no fireworks. Each gesture is twice as relevant because of the all around quiet and peace. Each word and each scream, each manifestation of anger or desperation is ten times as powerful because of the setting. Because of this silent stage, where the actors have nothing but each other. Their fate is in their hands. And maybe that’s the scariest part about it; these sinners, these monsters are their own judges. What good might come out of it?

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Greyhounds and priests.

 

 

 

Forever Gazing

Forever Gazing

What is that one thing we can’t put our finger on ? That one feeling, that sense of burning right in our guts that we can’t put out? That tremendous force that gives us strength in our weakest moments?
Love has been the subject of many, many, many, many movies. Some bad, some horrible, some good, some very good, and then there is John Cassavetes and Krzysztof Kieślowski. I’ll write about Cassavetes some other time. Today I’ll focus solely on the man himself, the angel of cinema; quite simply –  Kieślowski. His films were always stripped naked, torn apart and put back together. They were and still are to this day, in my opinion, the essence of cinema. They embody the power a film can carry, be it political, emotional or physical. Krzysztof Kieślowski was in my eyes both a student and a professor. By creating his movies, doing what he loved, he learned a lot and he taught a lot. His films weren’t just celluloid moving pictures – they were tales, parables, poems and reports. After having spent most of his early career making documentaries, he had the natural eye of a hawk. He wanted to know more about why we are here and why we act a certain way. He studied violence (A Short Film About Killing), he studied the concept of a soul (The Double Life of Veronique), he studied betrayal and spirituality (Decalogue: Two, Decalogue: One), he studied grief and anger (Three Colors: Blue), he studied chance and fate (Blind Chance), and after all of this, he also studied one of the most complex themes in movie history: love in A Short Film About Love (the extended version of Decalogue: Six).

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Tomek.

What made it so special? What was so accurate and poignant about  Kieślowski’s take on love? Well, for starters it presented love in a difficult situation. Tomek, the young protagonist, is lonely and misunderstood. His only way of approaching the woman he is so in love with is by spying on her through a stolen telescope. The woman he spies on is much older than him. She is also lonely, just like him, but manifests it differently; by inviting each night a different lover to her apartment. Tomek’s love is a hardship. He witnesses as Magda makes love with countless nobodies, men who do not appreciate her the way Tomek does. And it’s nothing physical. Kieślowski is not vulgar at all. Love is a fantasy. It’s a fantasy that can be crushed by anything at anytime. It is incredibly fragile. If someone sees him spying on Magda, it’s over. If Magda turns her back to him, it’s over. If the telescope malfunctions, it’s over.

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When the observed becomes the observer.

Kieślowski’s camera is again, an object meant for spying. We are spying someone who’s spying someone else at the same time. It is as if the director wanted us to feel Tomek’s pain, angst and fear of being discovered. Like all of Kieślowski’s films, this one is very personal and I think it doesn’t only apply to me or Kieślowski himself but to all of you too. Magda begins to watch Tomek. Everything all of a sudden turns upside down. She wants to observe her observer. She wants to feel what he feels. She wants to taste something she hasn’t tasted in a long time. Is love only a game of who watches who?
Piesiewicz, long time screenwriting partner of Kieślowski, and Kieślowski manage to add a flavor of simplicity, youth and uncertainty to this unique study. Their version of love is not sexual. Their version of love is beautiful but also dangerous and cruel. It can be both fatal and life saving. It’s a feeling that can keep you trapped for the rest of your life. And in a way, as we watch the story unfold (and all of the Decalogue, really) we get a feeling we’re trapped with the characters  living in an austere apartment block in communist Warsaw (the series was filmed in 1987, but released world wide only ten – fifteen years later). We find ourselves stuck the whole time between two windows opposite each other; Magda’s and Tomek’s. What is the point Kieślowski’s trying to make? Is love’s strength limited? Is it painful and monotonous? Can it be cut in half? That’s the thing with Kieślowski. He doesn’t give you answers. He formulates ideas, he paints heartbreaking and honest pictures, he suggests to you, his audience, to pay attention to a certain theme or emotion, and then he lets it flow.

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Love is life. Without love there is no hope. Without hope there is no future, and how can there be no future? Yes, no matter how sad, melancholic, brutal and honest Kieślowski’s films are, especially A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing, there is always hope. There is always something we look forward to. The taste in your mouth at the end of his movies can be bitter. The feeling in your stomach can be prickly. But whatever happens, there is always something. Here, Tomek looks up at Magda, and there is a vibration, and intensity between them. In Kieślowski’s movies the simplest of all things can become significant – a look, a blink of an eye, a gesture, a hint of a smile, a bit of love.

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The simplest of all things…