"The Fiances" - Ermanno Olmi (1963)


Italian filmmaker Ermanno Olmi has seen himself more as a craftsman than as an intellectual.  As such, he is different from the typically judgmental writer/author and more like (most of) us – he is a perceiver immersed in the complexity of the world surrounding him.  We generally don’t emphatically act in the clearly defined fashions of the actors that we usually see in films. Olmi evidently understands this, and what distinguishes him from and above most other filmmakers is his ability to tell his cinematic stories in a more naturalistic fashion – closer to the way we ourselves experience the world.  For this reason Olmi is often classified as a Italian Neorealist (and indeed Vittorio de Sica was one of his major influences), but there is a subtle difference.  The Neorealists tended to aim at capturing the “objective” life of ordinary people, as if they were documentarians.  But Olmi (who admittedly was originally a documentary filmmaker) has a way of presenting the world as it is existentially experienced by his characters.  This makes his films less objective, but more authentic.

The Fiances (I Fidanzati, 1963) was Olmi’s third film, following the marvelous Il Posto (1961), and it bears some similarities with its predecessor.  Both films follow the experiences of an ordinary young worker as he tries to adapt himself to a new job and social circumstances.  And both films have overtones concerning the dehumanizing aspects of work life that was becoming standard in modern postwar capitalism.  But The Fiances is not really so much concerned with sociopolitical commentary as it is with something more basic.

The story concerns the small joys and woes of a young Italian couple, the fiances, who have been engaged to be married for some time.  This was common in Italy for years after World War II because of the severe housing shortage that the war had created.  Even fifteen years after the war, there was a significant shortage of adequate housing, and so young couples often had to wait for some time before they could find a suitable apartment to move into and commence married life [1]. This long time of waiting could wear off the bloom of early romantic love.  For the couple in this story, further stress is placed on their relationship by the unhappy prospects of their being separated for some time due to work commitments.

Actually in some respects there doesn’t even seem to be much of a story at all in The Fiances.  That is truly a magical aspect of Olmi’s films in general.  They seem merely to feature only a random sequence of trivial incidents that don’t appear to have a meaningful connection to a coherent narrative.  And yet the cumulative experience of watching these incidents leads to something of an epiphany about life and love.  That is what happens here in The Fiances, and it testifies to Olmi’s extraordinary skill in weaving a meaningful tapestry out of these various scattered elements.

The narrative structure, such as it is, has roughly four sections to it that describe what happens to the two main characters, Giovanni (played by Carlo Cabrini) and Liliana (Anna Canzi).  The focalization of the film is almost entirely on Giovanni throughout.
1 The Departure
The film opens on a local dance hall in Milan where Giovanni and Liliana evidently habitually go for their social life.  The atmosphere of the dance hall is tacky and tasteless, as if all the people have been coming to this joint too many times, and it is now just a bad habit.  The live music that is played by the hired pianist and accordionist has a rather shabby organ-grinder feel to it, but this music persists in the mind of Giovanni and becomes the main musical theme of the film.

At the dance hall, it is evident that Giovanni and Liliana are out of sorts and barely speaking to each other.  This scene is interspersed with a number of flashbacks that provide the background for why the couple is at odds.  Giovanni has received a job-transfer offer that he cannot afford to refuse.  He is a blue-collar welder, and the job offer is a chance to get a pay raise and promotion by spending a year-and-a-half at a construction site in Sicily, several hundred miles to the south. As a proper young woman, Liliana cannot go with Giovanni to Sicily, so it means that they will be separated for a long time.  So naturally Liliana thinks that this will mean an end to their marriage engagement. As he is ready to depart, the quarrel is still not settled, and this section ends with Giovanni on a plane south to Sicily.

2 Arrival in Sicily

In this section the social isolation of Giovanni is clear.  He arrives in Sicily in the evening and checks into a hotel room where he will stay for a few days until he can find a more permanent residence.  Then he has a lonely dinner in the mostly empty hotel restaurant. Giovanni is a taciturn working-class person who listens more than he talks. At work at the construction site the next day, he observes a fellow worker is seriously injured and rushed away in an ambulance.  His foreman tells him that the local Sicilian workers don’t have an adequate work ethic: accustomed to the seasonal work of agricultural workers, they even fail to come to work on rainy days.

3 Giovanni at Leisure
But there are non-working days, too, and Giovanni explores the local area.  He has some time on his own, but again, he is always alone and has no new friends.  He walks into a local church and sits alone piously at a pew in the back.  When a dog enters the church and disrupts a pastoral session for some children, the children all giggle, and Giovanni is amused too.  This is the first time that we see him smile, but he is still alone.

On the bus to the construction site, Giovanni overhears his fellow transfer workers dismissively gossip about the pathetically peasant attitudes of the local Sicilians. 

He later goes to a raucous local street festival which features women dressed in festival masks who are thereby permissibly able to dance with strangers on the crowded square.  Giovanni dances with one such woman, who offers him a kiss but won’t take off her mask.  The festive spirit leads to general drunkenness, and back at the hotel Giovanni even gets into some rowdy pranks with some of the other tenants.

During sections 2 and 3 of the story, Giovanni occasionally has flashback memories of his life in Milan – one associated with this parting argument with the inconsolable Liliana and another one when he danced at the dance hall with a sexy girl with whom he had apparently had a brief affair.  So he is trying to immerse himself in the new surroundings, and maybe drifting away from Liliana.

4 Memories
Giovanni moves out of the hotel he had been staying at and into a barren little hostel room that will be his more permanent accommodation for his time in Sicily. But memories of Liliana keep coming back. He remembers his affair with the sexy Milanese girl and how it had hurt Liliana. And he remembers Liliana’s quiet suffering in response and her quitet heartfelt reaffirmation of her love for him. Now he begins to remember her more fondly. They begin to exchange letters, and this begins the most beautiful part of the film that shines a meaningful light on everything that has come before.  The normally taciturn Giovanni opens up as the letters are read aloud in voiceover:
“Why haven’t you written?  I sent my postcard two weeks ago and still no answer from you. . . . My regards to everyone and a kiss for you.”
Liliana responds that she was afraid to open his letter, fearing that it would be a “good-bye” letter from him:
“I hesitated to write back. . I wasn’t sure you wanted me to.” . . .
“I had lost faith and hope as well.”
As they exchange more letters, we learn that a couple of months have now passed.  The growing tenderness is conveyed by showing Liliana on camera speaking her letters aloud.  She says she doesn’t go dancing anymore, because he is no longer there to dance with her.
“I tried to forget you, to erase you from my thoughts.  But now, thank goodness, everything has changed.”
For his part, Giovanni’s words for her become tender and soulful, as he expresses his ardour for her.  He goes out and swims happily in the ocean, and we know that he is thinking of her.

At the film’s end, it is Sunday and a storm is brewing outside.  Giovanni spontaneously rings up Liliana on the phone and speaks to her. She is alarmed and wonders what’s wrong, but he says he called just because he was thinking of her.  With ominous thunder sounding outside, he speaks tenderly to her for a few minutes, and then hangs up as a torrential downpour with heavy winds drowns the countryside at the close of the film.
The storm at the end of The Fiances is a brilliant touch on the part of Olmi and accentuates the strong emotional feelings at the close.  A number of critics have viewed this closing storm as an indication that the affair between Giovanni and Liliana is either threatened or doomed to die of ennui (for example, [2,3]).  I don’t think so.  To me the storm merely emphasizes their sense of being apart and their vulnerability to external forces.  It shows how powerless they are in the face of exigencides that arise out of the wild, natural world out there, but it does not diminish their longing for each other – it brings greater attention and urgency to it.

The acting on the part of Carlo Cabrini and  Anna Canzi is superb.  They were not professional film actors prior to The Fiances, although they did appear in a few films thereafter. They both effectively portray basically inarticulate working-class people, but they convey magnitudes in their facial expressions, especially Ms. Canzi.


Overall, I am still amazed at the way Olmi does it – the way he stitches together the various mundane depictions of his protagonists’ surroundings so that they convey a sense of melancholy and reflection. And then he turns things around so that loneliness brings awareness and longing for the departed soulmate. This is not just operating according to the realism mythology of going out and find ordinary "real" people and then photographing them. This involves carefully staged theatrics, handling of actors, image composition, and editing. For me, this is closer to the authentic reality of our conscious existence. By doing this he constructs a nuanced inner narrative that conveys his message. The film's narrative movement is epitomized by the musical soundtrack. The "organ-grinder" accordion music theme in the beginning seemed sleazy and cheap, but it gradually comes to symbolize all the times that Giovanni and Liliana were together at the dance hall. While in those earlier times they had gotten into the habit of taking each other for granted, they have later come to look back at those times as wonderful moments that they shared.  And so the accordion theme at the end becomes a beautiful aural motif for their now-recognized true love.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Paul F. Wendt , “Post World-War-II Housing Policies in Italy”, Land Economics, Vol. 38, No. 2 (May, 1962), pp. 113-133.
  2.  Bill Gibron, “Past Perfect: Criterion Classics - I Fidanzati (1963)”, Popmatters, (19 December 2006). 
  3. Kent Jones, “Rhapsody in the Rain”, The Criterion Collection, (23 June, 2003).

"The Past" - Asghar Farhadi (2013)

After achieving international success and an Oscar with A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, 2011), Iranian filmmaker Ashgar Farhadi undertook the bold move of making a film outside his native Iran and in a language that was not his own. Farhadi’s The Past (Le Passé, 2013) is set in Paris and in French, but his singular dramatic style was unattenuated by these shifts.  The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or, and its female lead, Bérénice Bejo, won the Best Actress Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

The film continues with Farhadi’s focus on the difficulties that marital relationships have in modern society when the two partners have conflicting interests, as was the case with his three preceding works: Fireworks Wednesday (Chaharshanbe Suri, 2006), About Elly (Darbarye Elly, 2009), and the aforementioned A Separation (2011). But actually, what makes Farhadi’s films interesting is not just the issue of marital harmony, but a more fundamental and underlying theme: how can we achieve a shared understanding of what is true

We often have the sometimes naive faith that there is a single objective truth towards which we can all converge.  This can be the case when we observe the natural world with scientifically verified measuring devices.  But in the complex affairs of human engagement, the observer can have great difficulty arriving at any form of truly objective truth.  In these circumstances there is often a complex mixture of causal agents, each with unarticulated goals and histories. In attempts to explain what has happened, everyone may have their own slightly different version of just what did happen and what were the underlying causes of those events. So telling the objective truth may not be feasible.  Moreover and given these circumstances, we may need to modify or edit what we think is true in accordance with the social context. This was the major  theme of Farhadi’s masterpiece (to date) About Elly, and he continues exploring issues along these line in The Past.


There is another, closely related, theme covered in the film and that concerns the shifting degrees of authority – one can almost say, “territoriality” – that take place in modern life. With modern familial relations so complicated, the determination of who is truth’s arbiter (particularly towards children) in those circumstance can be difficult. Writer-director Farhadi fashions a plot for this film that brings all these issues to the fore.


The story of The Past covers a period of a few days and concerns the visit of an Iranian man who has returned from Tehran back to Paris after an absence of four years so that he can finalize a divorce from his French wife.  As with Farhadi’s other films, the narrative device of slow disclosure is used to tell the story, and the viewer must gradually piece together various scraps of information in order to discern the relationships and issues.  Thus the viewer is all the way, just like all the characters in the film, trying to establish what is true. Although at the film’s outset the wife is shown cordially greeting her estranged husband at the airport, the viewer soon learns that their relationship somehow fell apart four years ago.  Even in the car on the way home, they start needling each other and getting under each others’ skins.

There are seven principal characters in the story, and after awhile one learns how they are related.
  • Ahmad (played by Ali Mosaffa) is the Iranian husband who has returned to Paris for a visit after four years.
  • Marie-Anne Brisson (Bérénice Bejo) is his estranged wife, who is the mother of two children fathered by husbands previous to Ahmad.  She works in a Paris pharmacy and lives with her two daughters in a house she once shared with Ahmad about ten miles outside the city.
  • Lucie (Pauline Burlet) is Marie’s 16-year-old daughter.
  • Léa (Jeanne Jestin) is Marie’s daughter of about eight years of age
  • Samir (Tahar Rahim) is a French Arab and Marie’s current lover.  He runs a dry-cleaning shop in Paris within walking distance of Marie’s pharmacy, and he has a flat above the shop.
  • Fouad (Elyes Aguis) is Samir’s 6-year-old son.
  • Naïma (Sabrina Ouazani) is a French Arab woman who works in Samir’s dry-cleaning shop.
As the story unfolds Ahmad is seen to be the person who believes most in open honesty.  He evidently has faith in the idea that a shared truth can be established if we just tell everyone what we know. But his policy of sharing what he has heard only causes problems. The two little children, Lea and Fouad, do not have seemingly important roles, but they are spectators, like the film’s viewers, who are trying to make sense of the agonizing adults around them.  They are also just about the only ones in the film who ever smile; the rest of the characters seem to be uniformly unhappy with their lives.  This, in fact, points to one of the weaknesses of the film – the unrelentingly bad tempers of the principal characters, which casts a pall over the story that is only relieved occasionally by the appearance of the little kids.

The Story

The narrative structure can be seen as partitioned into three phases. In the first phase, the viewer is introduced to Ahmad, Marie, and Samir.  At the start, Ahmad and Marie meet at the airport, and Marie takes Ahmad back to her home.  Marie tells Ahmad that her daughter Lucie has been “giving her hell for the past two months”, and asks Ahmad to see if he can find out why.  Although Marie and Ahmad are quick to bicker with each other, there appears to be unresolved issues and still some tentative interest between them. Any thoughts of restoring the relationship, however, are soon squashed when Ahmad discovers that Samir and his son Fouad have moved in with Marie at the house, a fact that makes Ahmad noticeably uncomfortable. Soon, while Samir is away from the home, Fouad misbehaves, and we see how differently Marie and Ahmad attempt to deal with the impudent boy.  While Marie is short-tempered and punitive, Ahmad tries gently to reason with the boy.

Later Marie goes to the dry-cleaners to meet Samir, and it is clear that Samir is very uneasy about Marie’s former husband staying in the home (he had thought Ahmad would be put up at a hotel for his short visit to take care of the civil divorce proceedings).  In fact the tension between Marie and Samir is palpable at this point, and the prickly-tempered Marie scolds him by saying, “you can’t say whatever you want and then apologize”.  This is just one of many examples where people interpret what has been said in a negative way. Marie then goes to work at her pharmacy.

Meanwhile Ahmad at home reacquaints himself with Marie’s two daughters.  He learns from the older daughter, Lucie, that Samir is already married to a woman, Celine, but that she is currently comatose in a hospital. The reasons for why she is in a coma will be a major concern the rest of the way.  All we know is that Lucie is disturbed by the situation, and she holds Samir to blame and despises him.  In addition she suffers over the idea of her mother having new lovers all the time, and she complains, “since I was born my mom has changed guys three times” (one of those “guys”, of course, was Ahmad, himself).

Then in the final part of this first phase of the film, Ahmad and Marie go to the court the next day to take care of their divorce. 

The second phase of the narrative shifts its focus and is centered around Lucie and her desire to run away from home.  Ahmad is the only person she will talk to, and so he tries to spend some time with her to straighten things out.  Lucie reveals that Samir’s wife Celine is in a coma because she attempted suicide, and moreover, Lucie is sure that this came about because Celine was jealous about Samir’s affair with Marie.  Ahmad, who believes that airing everything out in the open is the best solution and that nothing should be kept hidden, tells Marie about Lucie’s suspicions.  Upon hearing this accusation, though, the volatile Marie goes ballistic and physically throttles her own daughter in anger.


The narrative focus shifts again in the third phase of the plot, this time to Samir, who has been largely a background character up to this point. We learn that there is an alternative possible explanation to account for Celine’s attempted suicide that involves the dry-cleaning assistant Naïma, and Samir holds on to this possibility. But in the end, the true explanation of what lay behind Celine’s act – an explanation of the past – proves to be elusive.  All we know is the present: that Celine remains in a permanent vegetative state, and that the lives of the others in this story are very gloomy indeed.

Themes
In the final analysis, the various characters are left with four plausible causes (i.e. guilty parties) for Celine's suicide:
  • Samir
  • Samir & Marie
  • Lucie
  • Naima
At the end the viewer, as well as these characters, themselves, are left with the problem of determining the causal responsibilities, which remain obscure.

It's a fascinating concoction, but there are a couple of elements in The Past that detract from its best possible realization. One, as already mentioned, concerns the persistent bad tempers of the characters. Everyone, except the two little kids, is in a very unhappy state, and the relentless bickering can be wearing.  This was also a problem that afflicted the earlier Fireworks Wednesday, and Farhadi has fallen back into it here.

A second difficulty concerns Farhadi’s close-to-the-vest use of slow disclosure, which is probably over-extended here.  It takes the viewer a relatively long time to discern some important facts that are crucial to understanding the story.  These include the following:
  • Samir’s wife, Celine, attempted suicide 8 months ago
  • Samir and Fouad have been living with Marie for 2 months
  • Marie is 2 months pregnant with Samir's child
  • Lucie has been giving Marie hell for 2 months
Once we learn the first three items, we can calibrate when the relationship between Marie and Lucie finally broke down (2 months ago – though we also eventually learn that as far as Lucie was concerned, her relationship with Marie had broken down much earlier, at least 8 months ago). 

In this connection Farhadi’s use of slow disclosure presents another problem.  I have compared Farhadi’s cinematic style to that of Michelangelo Antonioni [1] before, but in this instance we can mark a difference.  Both directors feature complex ensemble acting involving characters who are struggling to establish meaningful relationships.  But whereas in Antonioni’s work we “get inside” his principal characters and empathize with them, here in The Past it is difficult to do that because of the way Farhadi has concealed from his audience important aspects of what his characters are thinking.  Of course, this is part of Farhadi’s scheme, since figuring out what people are thinking is an important aspect of The Past.  But it does make it more difficult for the viewer to empathize with his characters.


There are other aspects of The Past, however, that more than make up for those detractions.  The acting in the film is outstanding.  Each character is well-realized, and they all play together beautifully in spontaneous, natural interactions.  Bérénice Bejo won a Cannes Film Festival acting award, but the others are equally meritorious.  In particular, the performances of the two little kids are amazing, especially that of Elyes Aguis in the role of Fouad.  I don’t think I can recall a young child giving a better performance on film.

The cinematography is also excellent.  There are complex interactive scenes with multiple characters, but Farhadi’s camera work is fluid and natural throughout.  He has finally discarded the use of a shaky hand-held camera to convey agitation, and that is a big plus in this film. 

Indeed, the themes of the film are very well embodied by the various principle characters with respect to their attitudes concerning important events of the past and how their memories of them affect their understanding of what is “true”:
  • Lucie feels guilt and anguish about the past in connection with her own malicious act of telling what she believes to be the truth.
  • Naïma wanted to free herself from suspicion about the past by telling a lie.
  • Marie wants to cut all her ties with the past. She wants to forget the past and the people associated with it completely and start over.
  • Ahmad is the empathetic one and tries to bring people together into a harmonious present.  But he seeks to do this by exposing everything in the naive belief that he can establish a single ontology.  He wants to achieve harmony by establishing a mutually agreed-upon truth.  But his efforts in this regard lead to disaster almost every time.  As Ahmad is getting ready to leave the house and go back to Tehran, he has a brief conversation with Marie in one last attempt to establish some common ground – there’s something he wants to tell Marie, about why he left four years ago, and he says,
    “I want to explain why I didn’t . . . “. 
    But Marie cuts him off and says she’s not interested.  She just wants to forget the past.
  • Samir, the person on whom the camera closes at the end of the film, cannot let go of the past.  The past is still present for him.
Those closing camera shots of the film are particularly notable, and they leave a lasting effect on the viewer.  The second to the last shot in the film is a one-minute-long tracking shot following Samir around in the hospital.  This is followed by a single, extraordinary shot lasting five minutes and thirty second that tracks the movements of Samir that close the film.  By slowing down the pace of the film in this way, Farhadi has extracted us from the past and brought us into Samir’s agonizingly interminable and inescapable present.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. “About Elly”, The Film Sufi, 15 April 2012.

“Equinox Flower” - Yasujiro Ozu (1958)

Yasujiro Ozu’s first color film, Equinox Flower (Higanbana, 1958) did not represent a radical break from his famously rigorous visual style. He merely extended that style by including colored objects as another formally manipulable stylistic element. The Japanese title for the film, “Higanbana”, refers to a “red spider lily” that blooms around the time of the autumnal equinox (hence the English title), and so red-colored objects are prominently on display throughout the film. In particular, there is a brightly red-colored tea kettle that is prominently shown in the main domestic setting.  It is frequently repositioned so that it occupies a significant position in the frame in various situations.  Because of its continued visual prominence, I wonder if it has some special symbolic significance in the Japanese cultural context.

The subject matter of Equinox Flower is in accord with Ozu’s usual themes concerning how cross-generational Japanese family life tries to find harmony between the old and the new.  In this case, though, the film features more light-hearted comedic content than usual, to the extent that many people have classified this film as a comedy.  I wouldn’t go that far, though, and in fact the film’s ultimate message seems, like many of Ozu’s films, almost elegiacal about the passing on of a generation.

The story concerns a middle-aged businessman, Wataru Hirayama (played by Shin Saburi), who finds himself confronted with the eternal parental problem of how to shepherd a daughter to a successful marriage. Hirayama is a senior manager accustomed in the Japanese tradition to wielding complete power and receiving deferential treatment by all those around him. Though he is mild-mannered, he expects absolute obedience.  But it turns out in this story that many of the people around him are women with their own ideas of how things should be done with respect to choosing a marriage partner.  The narrative tension in the story concerns how Hirayama adjusts himself to these unsettling circumstances.

The film starts right off on the subject of marriage, with Hirayama and his wife Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) attending the wedding of a business friend.  Given his authoritative status at the company, Hirayama is asked to say a few words at the reception, and he remarks (somewhat belittlingly in the face of his wife sitting next to him) that while his own marriage was pragmatically arranged by the parents and was not a love match, the present bride and groom are to be admired and envied for their evident love for each other.  This points to the primary issue in the film: should a bride be able to choose her mate, or should the parents arrange a suitable match for her?  There are three separate young women featured in the film who struggle with their parents about this question:
  • Setsuko Hirayama (Ineko Arima), is the Hirayama’s elder daughter.  She wants to marry a young coworker with whom she has fallen in love, but her father wants her to marry a man from a more prosperous and esteemed family.
  • Fumiko Mikami (Yoshiko Kuga) is the daughter of Hirayama’s old school friend, Shukichi Mikami (Chishû Ryû), who is a widower.  She wants to marry a musician she has met, but her father doesn’t approve.
  • Yukiko Sasaki (Fujiko Yamamoto) is the daughter of Hatsu Sasaki (Chieko Naniwa), a woman who operates an inn in Kyoto. Yukiko doesn’t have a boyfriend, but she resists her mother’s incessant attempts to find a match with anyone who comes along who looks well-to-do.
There are two other women in the background who give support significant support to their “sisters” in these struggles:
  • Kiyoko Hirayama (Kinuyo Tanaka) is Wataru’s wife and, though lovingly obedient to her husband, she devotes herself to overall familial harmony.  Throughout the film she behaves like a saint and radiates the warmth that is lacking from her husband.
  • Hisako Hirayama (Miyuki Kuwano), Setsuko’s younger teenage sister, is fully modernized and a cheerfully staunch supporter of a woman’s right to choose.

The narrative passes through three stages of development.  In the first stage, the various characters are introduced and given the opportunity to express their views on marriage. Hirayama discusses with his wife the idea of their daughter Setsuko having a marriage arranged with a man from a prominent and wealthy family. Hearing this, younger daughter Hisako avows that she would never accept an arranged marriage.  Later Hirayama’s old friend Mikami visits Hirayama and tells him about his parental problems with his wayward daughter, Fumiko, who has run away from home and gone off to live with her musician boyfriend. Fumiko is now working at a cocktail lounge and is not in communication with her family, so Mikami asks Hirayama if he would go over there and “check up on her”.


Also during this first stage Hirayama is visited by a woman friend who operates an inn in Kyoto, Mrs. Sasaki, who is visiting Tokyo with her daughter, Yukiko.  Mrs. Sasaki is a nonstop chatterbox, and her presence is apparently supposed to inject humor into the story.  On a subsequent private visit to Hirayama’s residence, Yukiko confidingly complains to Hirayama about her garrulous mother’s repeated efforts to find a husband for her.  She is just not interested in her mother’s candidates. Hirayama, in line with the sentiments he recently expressed at the wedding, advises her not to marry just anyone and warns her, “you may think marriage is golden, but it can end up being brass.”  But Yukiko is rather cheeky and can fend for herself.  When she talks to Setsuko (they are old friends), they make a secret pact to help each other fend off their parents match-making impositions.  Anyway, up to this point things have been going pretty smoothly.

But in the film’s second stage, conflict arises.  Hirayama is shocked to be approached by a young man, Mr. Taniguchi, who asks for hist daughter Setsuko’s hand.  Although it turns out that this is the man Setsuko really wants to marry, Hirayama is angry that he has not a chance to conduct the requisite family background checks, and so he rejects the proposal outright. This sets off a family storm, and Hirayama dictatorially orders that Setsuko be confined at home, telling her 
“Bad things happen when young girls go out. Stay home for a few days and think it over.”  

Hirayama is not outwardly aggressive, but he is used to operating within a system where authority is obeyed without question.

In an effort to assist his old friend , Hirayama goes over to the cocktail lounge and tries to talk to Fumiko Mikami, but he sees that the girl is happily and seriously committed to her new life.  Now he is beginning to see the other side of things.  When Yukiko comes to visit him and confides that she wants to merry someone for love, against her mother’s choice, Hirayama encourages her to follow her heart.  But this turns out to be a ruse on Yukiko’s part, in keeping with the secret pact she had made with Setsuko  – Yukiko informs HIrayama that she will now tell Setsuko that her father accepts a girl's right to choose her own mate.  The logic of Hirayama’s position has been exposed as flawed.

The third stage of the story, and roughly the last one-third of the film’s running time, concerns the growing acceptance and resignation on the part of Hirayama that the whole system of doing things that he is accustomed to is passing away.  To his credit, Hirayama gradually accepts the modern way.  When his wife Kiyoko tells him that he has been inconsistent, he sadly acknowledges that “as a scholar said: ‘the sum total of inconsistencies is life’”.

He and Mikami then go to an old school reunion, where the men in attendance all reflect on their passing glory. These men, who are all mild-mannered white-collar businessmen, have been working within a system that glorifies leaders as noble warriors and heroes. The others all invite Mikami to recite a poem said to be by the ancient hero, Kusunoki Masatsura, who died in battle at the age of 22 some six centuries earlier [1]. In sonorous tones, Mikami sings to them
"My father's precepts are engraved in my heart.
I will faithfully follow the emperor's edict.
10 years of patience, and finally the time has come.
Strike a powerful blow
For the emperor's cause we are struggling now.
To fight and die as men, we make an oath.
We, 143 companions of war, united as one,
Determined to fight until victory, yes, we are.
By dying, heroes earn an immortal glory,
The cowards suffer an eternal shame.
With the edges of our arrows, we engrave our story,
The blades of our swords shine in the evening.
Against the approaching enemy, let's walk with the same step,
At their general, let's give the final blow."
To their credit, Mikami and Hirayama have come to accept the new form of familial autonomy that they have hitherto resisted. Ozu seems to be telling us that you can teach old dogs new tricks. This is the modern way, and they will just have to become accommodated to it. 

Setsuko’s wedding to Taniguchi goes ahead on schedule. With one last act of cheekiness, Yukiko convinces Hirayama that he should go visit the newly married couple in Hiroshima and assure them of his warm paternal endorsement. The final shots of Equinox Flower show him headed away on the train to pay his penance.
★★★

Notes:
1.    "Kusunoki Masatsura", Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation (accessed 20 August 2014).

"Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars" - Berit Madsen (2013)


When we look up at the stars at night, we can’t help but marvel.  What lies behind their complex arrangement?  How are they connected to life below?  And we further reflect that everyone who has walked the earth has looked upwards so and perhaps had the same thoughts as ours. This universal wonder of the heavens and our connections to it are what lie at the heart of Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars, a feature-length documentary film by Danish social anthropologist Berit Madsen.

The setting is a provincial town, Sa’adat Shahr, in southern Iran, and the focus is on a teenage girl, Sepideh Hooshyar, whose obsessive quest to learn more about astronomy underscores the universality of the human imagination.  This woman in a faraway corner of Iran is not so different from the rest of us  – she is just like you and me.  Or at least like me.  I, too, was fascinated by astronomy at that age, and when I was 13-years-old, I had my own little planetarium and gave a lecture on astronomy at a school.  Of course, the social circumstances surrounding Sepideh’s situation are not negligible – they are of particular interest here and are key aspects to this tale.  Women in Iran, especially provincial Iran, are not supposed to go outside at night and gaze at the heavens.

The filming was spread out over some time, apparently about three or four years, and at various stages in the story, Sepideh is shown describing herself as 16, 17, and later 18 years of age [1].  As the film unwinds covering this period, the viewer learns some things about Sepideh’s personal life.   The town of Sa’adat Shahr, with a population of about 15,000 people, lies northeast of Shiraz and in between the ruins of two world-famous historical sites of some 2500 years in the past: the ancient ruins of the Achaemenid Empire capital at Persepolis and the royal tomb at Pasargadae of the Achaemenid emperor Cyrus the Great. Sepideh lives with her mother and brother, her father having passed away suddenly when Sepideh was 12. Sepideh had used her small inheritance at that time to purchase a telescope, which she now (at the time of the film) diligently lugs up local mountainsides to observe the heavens. Since her father’s death, their small family farm has fallen into disuse because of persistent drought, and the family needs support from relatives.

Actually, if you happen to go to southern Iran, you will find that the nighttime sky is unusually clear, and you will be able to see myriads of stars at night.  This is presumably due to the dry air and elevated landscape in the area.  Perhaps partly because of this clear nighttime visibility and, more importantly, due to the passions of a local high school teacher (more about him later), the people of Sa’adat Shahr have developed a passion for star-gazing – they have gone so far as to make contributions from their household savings in order to support the construction of their own local observatory.  It was in this environment that Sepideh became a passionate participant in the astronomical studies going on there.

Sepideh’s passion for the study of astronomy takes inspiration from two path-breaking figures who serve as her role models.  One of them is Albert Eienstein, and she has posted pictures of Einstein all over her bedroom walls.  He is such a hero to her that she feels a personal connection to him, and she writes messages to him in her diary about her goals and plans.  Sepideh’s other role model is Anousheh Ansari, a wealthy Iranian woman who self-funded her own personal mission to become an astronaut, which resulted in her becoming the first Iranian to travel in space.  Sepideh dreams of following in her footsteps and also become a cosmonaut.

For just about anyone this would be an extravagant dream, but Sepideh is clearly a capable and ambitious girl who believes in herself.  There are two roadblocks blocking her way, however.  One is a lack of money.  Her widowed mother doesn’t have the means to send her to a university, and her deceased father’s brothers are unwilling to help out financially.  So Sepideh, undaunted, applies for a government university scholarship by submitting a research proposal based on her theory that Cyrus the Great’s ancient tomb at Pasargadae was constructed to serve as an astronomical observatory.  This seems like an interesting and provocative idea – after all, similar notions have been proposed for reasons behind the construction of Stonehenge in England [2]. But the Iranian funding authorities brush off her proposal, and Sepideh doesn’t get her scholarship.

The second problem that Sepideh faces comes from her family.  Her mother doesn’t want Sepideh to be an astronomer or astronaut, she want her daughter to learn how to cook so she can secure a good husband.  This, of course, is typical of parents the world over.  They don’t want their children to be great; they want them to be normal.  And for an Iranian girl in a provincial town to be walking around on hillsides at night lugging a telescope, that is well outside the scope of normalcy.  But Sepideh is a determined girl and is unwavering in her ambition.  Her mother cannot change her mind.  An interesting response to one of her mother’s complaints about what she is doing reveals some of Sepideh’s erudition – she quotes former Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh:
“My pain is not fences around the pond but to live amongst fish that cannot imagine the ocean.”

A more sinister opponent to the girl’s ambitions is her uncle Hadi, who warns her that it is dangerous for young girls to go out unaccompanied at night. But his concerns do not appear to be primarily about her welfare.  He warns her that if something “bad” were to happen on such an occasion, he would have to kill her. His primary concern is apparently for his own “honor” (although I have always been mystified by what kind of honor it could be that is supposed to be elevated by killing a female family member who has been intimate with another man). But this is the world that Sepideh inhabits.

Fortunately, for Sepideh and for her community, there is also a positive agent in the town that is selflessly working to promote not only education, but also self-realization on the part of his students.  This is the local high school physics teacher, Ashgar Karibi.  He is the person who has promoted the local interest in astronomy, which he sees as a means for the people to look beyond their own local horizons. Sepideh is his star pupil, and he encourages her to go as far as she can in her quest.  Sepideh’s enthusiasm is further inflamed by an overseas phone call that she receives from her heroine, Anousheh Ansari, to whom she had sent a fan letter.  These two supporters want Sepideh to follow her dream.

As the film draws to a close, however, Sepideh is presented with a marriage proposal, and she is at a crossroads.  Marriage in her locale usually means becoming a housewife, having children right away, and abandoning any career.  In this case, though, the suitor belongs to the local astronomy club and appears to encourage Sepideh’s interests in studying.  Seeing a chance to get the rebellious girl to settle down, her family supports the proposal.  But Mr. Karibi is doubtful, and he thinks the girl would be giving in to the pressures of stultifying convention if she were to accept.  In any case, we learn that Sepideh apparently does go ahead and accept the proposal, but she still hopes to become an astronaut someday.

The filming of Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars is well-crafted but sometimes curious.  Berit Madsen is familiar with Iranian culture, since her husband is from Iran, and she manages to capture a good portion of Iranian domestic life.  But many of the scenes showing Sepideh spontaneously engaged in discussions with her mother and others appear to be staged – probably reenactments of previous encounters that Madsen deemed to be meaningful.  Also, of course, as is demanded by Iranian customs, the women are always shown in roosari, even though this would probably not always be the case inside the home.  Nevertheless, the most important element – the personality of the Sepideh – does come through, and that is important.

In terms of the film’s larger theme, though, we could say that it is more than just the story of one exceptional girl.  It also provides a metaphorical look at Iranian social culture, which is showcased by its women.  Sepideh is representative here, since she appears to be open, sensitive, passionate, and engaging.  And the two principal males in the film, her uncle Hadi Hooshyar and her mentor Ashgar Karibi, symbolize two polarizing social forces that are pushing the country in different directions.  Hadi does not appear to be a bad person, but he embodies a rigid conservative tradition of suppression of all potential temptations in the name of “honor”.  In contrast Karibi is dedicated to encouraging his students to explore the world, and by implication, their own imaginations.  Importantly, he does not appear to be a bourgeois Westerner. He is just another, different strain of traditional Iranian, and he devotedly adheres to his family duties of looking after his elderly enfeebled mother who requires near round-the-clock attention. It is wrong to say that Iran is just one of these two strains; it is both, and they are continually struggling against each other.  What direction that society will head is still uncertain.  This is why Iran is seems to be a paradox – there are so many restrictions against women, and yet women make up about 60% of the university student population [3]. And, as demonstrated by the accomplishments of Anousheh Ansari and the recent Fields Medal (tantamount to a Nobel Prize in mathematics) awarded to Maryam Mirzakhani [4], Iranian women are amazingly capable. Despite those landmark achievements, though, there are ongoing concerns, as noted by Human Rights Watch [5]:
“Human Rights Watch has documented regressive [Iranian] policies that have been administered in recent years that have led to a rollback on women's rights, including gender-based policies in universities that disproportionately affect women.”
Let us hope that Sepideh, Mr. Karibi, and people like them manage to get the support they need for what they are trying to do.  Perhaps this film will help.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Berit Madsen, “Stargazer: Berit Madsen On Meeting The Inspiration Behind ‘Sepideh’”, Tribeca Film Institute, 21 November 2013.
  2. “Archeoastronomy and Stonehenge”, Wikipedia, (accessed 19 August, 2014).
  3. "Education in Iran", Wikipedia, (accessed 19 August, 2014),
  4. Dana Mackenzie, “Iranian Woman Wins Maths' Top Prize, the Fields Medal”, New Scientist, 12 August 2014.
  5. “Human Rights Watch Film Festival”, Human Rights Watch, 2014.