This post is part of a new, ongoing partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Antenna: Responses to Media & Culture and the Society for Cinema & Media Studies’ Cinema Journal.
The task of great art, from Sophocles to David Lynch, has been to wring from extreme human suffering some hard-won affirmation. This most optimistic of all potential perspectives infuses the spirit of this second group of films shown at the New York Film Festival 2012.
Caesar Must Die (76 mins.) directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, shot in the high security section of Rome’s Rebibba Prison, with all parts played by real prisoners and real prison personnel, is an inspiring case in point, as it explores the implications of a production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar made possible by government funding. The Tavianis do not analyze the politics of the “Shakespeare prison program,” but rather invoke art as the vehicle by means of which all men and women may deal with personal transgression and vicissitudes of fortune.
Caesar Must Die begins in color, during a prison performance, as Brutus commits suicide. We are on a stage set with inexpensive scenery, confronting actors dressed in makeshift costumes. However, the power of Salvatore Striano, the prisoner playing Brutus, transcends his circumstances. Breathing heavily, “Brutus” finally succeeds in finding someone to hold his sword so that he can run on it, in a wrenching moment intentionally filled with ambiguity. Does Brutus regret his treachery to his friend, Caesar? Is he punishing himself for the failed rebellion? Or would he rather die than be captured? These are issues familiar to the prisoners, and when the film cuts to a black and white flashback of the weeks leading up to the performance, the actors’ emotional exploration of the deeds that lead to Brutus’s self-immolation becomes the focus of the movie. Astonishingly, for these uneducated, downtrodden men, the reward is insight, not escape, from their guilt or the misery of being incarcerated. We, encumbered by our own remorse and limits, are also offered the possibility of a pristine form of catharsis.
First Cousin Once Removed (78 mins.), a documentary directed by Robert Berliner about the descent into Alzheimer’s disease of his much older cousin Edwin Honig, a revered poet and teacher, also strives toward catharsis. Berliner follows his cousin’s loss of language and memory over five years, juxtaposing images of Honig with interviews of his friends and family, natural images, poetry readings, animated print graphics, and musical interludes. These yield both a celebration of Honig’s intelligence and talent, and a charged exploration of the lifelong burden of guilt Honig carried for the death of his brother, Stanley, when he was 5 and Stanley was 3. The Honig we see was a brilliant man, but everyone who knew him intimately, except Berliner, paid for his unending self-immolation, especially his two sons and their mother. Berliner’s unsettling portrait shows what it means to be at the mercy of accident, history, and old age and supports his contention that a human core remains even when articulation is taken from us.
Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love also surveys history and chance. Kiarostami, an Iranian, shot his film in Tokyo with a completely Japanese cast speaking only in Japanese, a language he does not know. He pulls off this daunting tour de force and presents us with, to quote filmmaker and actor Jean-Claude Carriere, a tale of “love scorned, ignored and under threat, but indestructible.” The film concerns events in the life of a girl in her late teens (Rin Takanashi), who works, reluctantly, as an escort, and is stuck in an abusive romantic relationship, events that begin the night she is sent to entertain a former sociology professor in his seventies (Tadashi Okuno). In telling his “Tokyo story,” Kiarostami pays homage to the legendary director Yasujiro Ozu, whose films explore the conflict in Japan between structured, traditional culture and the fragmenting tendencies of modernity. However, where Ozu’s stories balance stasis and change, Like Someone in Love immediately casts off tradition, and dives into modern disorder.
As we begin, we experience the chaos of a crowded night club, hearing a one-sided conversation over the general din, unable to tell who is speaking. She turns out to be a previously unseen girl talking on the phone to an unheard man who is upset that she has chosen to spend the evening with her grandmother instead of him. But she does neither. Rather, she is coaxed by her pimp into going to serve a client, and as she speeds toward the assignation we glimpse, through the window of the taxi, her grandmother, who has made the journey into Tokyo from a nearby provincial town, waiting patiently at the foot of a ponderous statue. When this source of stability and profound love vanishes from the film, our heroine’s situation seems bleak. However, her meeting with her client defies expectation. Through the spontaneous interconnection of girl, client, and boyfriend (Ryo Kase), Kiarostami asserts the unforeseen ways in which the ancient capacity for love is made new in a time of confusion and violence.
But not all NYFF filmmakers with high aspirations succeeded. Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (120 mins.) tries in vain to celebrate art and the life force. It is based on a 2001 bestseller in which a man named Pi tells a novelist of his boyhood ordeal in a shipwreck, when his parents, owners of a zoo, attempted to relocate, with some animals, from India, to Montreal. Young Pi, the lone human survivor, found himself challenged to keep afloat along with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutang, and a tiger named Richard Parker. Lee adapts the novel to the screen using a huge water tank built at an abandoned airport on Taiwan as a stand-in for the ocean, and featuring a CGI Richard Parker that is a composite of three “French” tigers and one “Canadian” tiger. But can an ode to life, however sincerely proposed, emerge from a completely fabricated mise-en-scene? Many present at the packed press screening appreciated the spectacle, formed an affection for the tiger, and yet left unmoved by Lee’s larger intentions.
Part III in short order.