“Once Upon a Time in America” - Sergio Leone (1984)

Once Upon a Time in America (C’era una Volta in America, 1984) was the last film that Sergio Leone directed and also his most monumental achievement.  This epic production about young Jewish gangsters in early 20th-century New York City pushes the boundaries of cinematic expression in several dimensions and remains as breathtaking today as when it was first released.  Leone’s previous directorial outing had been Duck You Sucker (Giù la Testa, aka A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time… the Revolution, 1971), and although he had been active in the film industry over those intervening years, he had stepped out of the limelight and seemed to be preparing the foundations for his masterpiece.  He had even turned down an offer to direct The Godfather (1972) so that he could concentrate on his own conception of American underworld society.

Societal themes had not really been part of Leone’s original claim to fame, which had been based on epic man-to-man encounters in the American Old West with his “Dollars" (aka “Man With No Name”) trilogy – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966).  But after those early successes, Leone’s vision broadened to incorporate the social dimension, and his subsequent, and final, three films, sometimes referred to as his “Once Upon a Time” trilogy all include a perspective on significant social dynamics that have affected modern society:
  • Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) incorporated an implicit view of how the spread of industrialization, symbolized by the railroad, was bringing the desirable social sense of corporation to the individual-centric Old American West.
  • Once Upon a Time… the Revolution (1971) included a perspective on the intellectualized undergirdings that support modern revolutionary impulses.
  • Once Upon a Time in America looked at the rise in America of organized crime in the form of the “Syndicate” (aka the National Crime Syndicate) [1].
Leone was inspired to take up this latter theme by reading the semi-autobiographical novel The Hoods (1952) by Harry Grey (real name: Herschel Goldberg). He then set about preparing his elaborate shooting script and assembling his production team, which included his invaluable collaborators, Tonino Delli Colli [2] for the cinematography and Ennio Morricone for the music. The cinematography and the music, of course, are essential aspects of Leone’s aesthetics and are what make his films stand out in the viewer’s memory.

As usual with Leone’s (and Delli Colli’s) cinematography, there are atmospheric and scenic wide-view tracking shots, here of cityscapes, that are adroitly combined with character closeups of the principals involved.  Also as usual, much of Morricone’s musical score was composed and recorded before production so that Leone could employ it on the film set to inspire the acting performances.  The music also included the wistful and evocative pan-flute tones of Gheorghe Zamfir.  The musical themes create a pervasive melancholy atmosphere throughout the film and are present both diegetically (performed on camera in the story) and non-diegetically heard on the soundtrack.

Despite the film’s aesthetic virtues and lengthy production period, however, it was not a success at the box office.  After a 10-month period of shooting in 1982-83, Leone planned to make two three-hour films for commercial release.  Producers pushed him to shorten this, though, and he eventually released a 229-minute version for distribution in Europe [3].  For the American release, producers further forced, against Leone’s wishes, a drastically re-edited and shortened (and much criticized) 139-minute version, which turned out to be a commercial disaster.  Perhaps because of this box-office failure, Leone did not direct another film.

The story of Once Upon a Time in America revolves around the interactions of three principal characters from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and it covers three widely-separated time sequences that span a period of almost fifty years.  Although there are a number of dramatic and violent events in the story, the key elements concern the nature of these characters and how they affect each other.  We see them interacting when they are teenagers, when they are in their twenties, and when they are in their sixties.
  • David “Noodles” Aaronson (played by Robert De Niro) is a gangster and almost the exclusive center of focalization in the story.  He can be violent, even murderous, when frustrated, but he has his sensitive side, too.  Although he wants to be wealthy, his primary value is friendship and loyalty.  When we watch this story, we are viewing a person who is basically a ruthless animal, but who wants to be human.
  • Max Bercovicz (James Woods) is also a gangster and something of a senior partner to Noodles.  He also values friendship, but his overriding ambition trumps everything else, and he is more calculating and conniving than Noodles.
  • Deborah Gelly (Elizabeth McGovern) is a young woman from Noodles’s neighborhood who dreams of winning fame as a dancer and actress.  She is the object of Noodles’s romantic desires, and she fancies him, despite his shady life as a hood.

There are two key and conflicting relationships in the story:
  1. RM – Noodles’s relationship with Max, which is such a strong bonding that it is almost like an asexual love affair.  In some ways this relationship symbolizes Noodles’s sense of camaraderie with all his close male companions.
  2. RD – Noodles’s relationship with Deborah.  In every one of the key RD scenes of the film, Noodles wishes for an affectionate response from Deborah, but he never quite gets it.
The story unfolds in a nonlinear, serpentine fashion, and these intertwined relationships are so compelling that they sustain the viewer’s interest throughout.  The three separate time periods shown, which I estimate to be in 1921, 1933, and 1968, are interspersed and not shown in chronological order, and the degree to which the earlier scenes represent flashbacks is not always clear.  However, the key relationship scenes in the film,  identified in the following  by RM# and RD#, are presented in chronological order. In general, Leone uses the technique of “slow disclosure” to develop a scene, whereby the context of some scenes is only understood gradually as the viewer pieces together information details that are presented  over time.  In any case, the story is presented in nine unevenly apportioned sequences.
1.  1933-4: Aftermath of the Shootout

At the beginning of the film, a young woman, Eve, who turns out to be Noodles’s girlfriend is accosted and murdered in her apartment by gangsters who are looking to find Noodles. They also savagely beat up a restauranteur and friend of Noodles, “Fat Moe” (Larry Rapp), in order to find his whereabouts. (These are among the few scenes in the film that do not focalize on Noodles.)  Noodles at this moment is in an opium den that is upstairs to a Chinese shadow-puppet theater.  In his opium daze, Noodles recalls a phone call he had earlier made to the police that led to a shootout killing of his criminal partners, whose names are identified as Max, Cockeye, and Patsy. 

Waking up from his opium daze and escaping the thugs, Noodles visits the beat-up Fat Moe, and after killing one of the thugs still lurking on the scene, takes from Moe's place a key to a railroad locker containing a suitcase.  When Noodles retrieves the suitcase, he is shocked to find it empty. But evidently he feels the need to get away. Apparently seeking anonymity, he then buys a one-way ticket to Buffalo, New York.

2.  1968-1: Noodles Returns to New York City
A much older Noodles in 1968 is seen in the same train station, so we can guess that the earlier sequence was a flashback reminiscence on the part of Noodles.  Noodles goes to visit Fat Moe on the suspicion that Fat Moe had stolen the loot that was supposed to have been in that suitcase years ago. Quickly seeing that he was wrong about Moe, they exchange pleasantries.  Asked what he has been up to over the past thirty-five years, Noodles merely says that he has ‘been going to bed early.”  We never do learn anything about that period of Noodles’s life. 

Noodles does say that he has recently received a cryptic letter that indicated he has been found, and to find out what that means is why he has returned to New York City.  Then he looks into a back storage room of Moe’s restaurant and lapses into a reverie of the past.

3.  1921: The Teenage World of Noodles
The next hour of the film covers life the period when Noodles was 15 or 16-years old.  Noodles leads a small gang of delinquents consisting of himself and three others: Patsy, Cockeye, and Dominic, and they spend their time making pocket money by rolling drunks and carrying out punishments on deadbeats who owe money to loan sharks.  In one of their operations they run into another teenage tough, Max, who appears to be a couple of years older than Noodles.  Although Max and Noodles are potential rivals, Max quickly warms to Noodles, and they become close comrades (RM1).

Noodles admires Moe’s sister, Deborah, who spends her time practicing her dancing lessons.  She sometimes encourages his glances, but she puts him down as a common street thug who doesn’t aspire to the respectability that she wants (RD1).  

On another occasion when she is alone minding her parent’s restaurant, she invites Noodles in and reads poetry to him from the romantic biblical text Song of Songs.  But as she reads, she interpolates into the lines some of her own snarky comments about Noodles:  
“He is always lovable, but he will always be a two-bit punk, so he will never be my beloved.”
Still, she seems to like Noodles, and they come together for a kiss. When Max interrupts them, however, she is turned off by his punk relationships, and she sarcastically tells Noodes to “go on, run, your mother’s calling you.”  Noodles joins Max outside the restaurant, but the two of them immediately run into a rival gang of older boys led by another thug, “Bugsy”, who proceed to attack them and beat them to a pulp. When the beat-up Noodles tries to return to the safety of the restaurant, though, Deborah refuses to let him in (RD2).

Nevertheless, with the spirited participation of Max now leading them, their little gang has increasing success in their criminal capers.  They loyally decide to share all their plunder and stash it in a suitcase to be stored in a railroad station locker (the same one scene in Act 1). 

But they are operating in a dangerous world, and they have another encounter with Bugsy, who guns down Dominic on the street.  Overcome with rage at seeing his buddy killed, Noodles sneaks up on Bugsy and stabs him to death, and also stabs a cop who has come to intervene.  Noodles is arrested for murder and spends the next twelve years in prison.

4.  1968-2: Noodles at the Cemetery
The film now transitions forward to 1968, with Noodles visiting an upscale cemetery, where an elaborate mausoleum has been erected commemorating his former colleagues Max, Cockeye, and Patsy.  Noodles sees a key hanging on the inside wall and correctly guesses that it can be used to open up the old railroad station locker that had stored the gang’s suitcase full of loot.  When he goes there and opens up the suitcase, this time he finds it is full of cash, with a mysterious message indicating it is an advance payment. 

So Noodles figures he is being set up for something – but by whom and for what?

5.  1933-1: Noodles Rejoins the Gang
Another transition moves the film back in time to a short time before Act 1, perhaps 1932 or 1933. Noodles is released from prison and is welcomed back by his loyal friend Max, who provides him with a hooker for his immediate gratification (RM2). Max, now a successful rum-running gangster in the US era of alcohol prohibition and working with Cockeye (William Forsythe) and Patsy (James Hayden), takes him to a party at Fat Moe’s establishment, which is now a speakeasy.  There he meets the girl he had been dreaming of while in prison for the past twelve years, Deborah, who is now grownup and glamorous.  In a truly brilliant scene of tentative interaction (RD3), Noodles fishes for a warm reception from his dream love.  She is hesitant about saying that she missed him while he was locked up, so he has to coax something out of her.  
Noodles: “. . . you mean you weren’t counting the days?”
Deborah: “of course I was”
However, when Max summons Noodles for a private meeting, she again tells him,
“Go on, your mother’s calling you." 
But then she adds,
" . . . . it’s good to see you again, Noodles”
Max immediately arranges a meeting for the gang, now including Noodles once more, to engage in a diamond heist in Detroit for upper-level gangsters, Frankie (Joe Pesci) and Joe (Burt Young).  They pull of the heist, and when they return and go to an abandoned wharf to exchange their diamonds for a payoff from Joe, they massacre Joe and his men.  Noodles is shocked and disturbed by the double-cross, but Max explains that it was all part of Frankie’s plan.  Noodles expresses his concern to Max that their customary gang loyalty is being replaced by a corporate gangster mentality that dissolves trust (RM3).  This is where the film begins to make allusions to the rise of the “Syndicate” that began to emerge in the US at about this time.  The Syndicate was a criminal coalition that moved from illegal alcohol sales to a widespread infestation of American business and politics, including labor unions.

6.  1968-3: Noodles Recollecting
The aged Noodles is watching TV in 1968 and notices that a politician shown on the screen is a former labor leader, Jimmy Conway O’Donnell (Treat Williams) that he was acquainted with back in 1933.

7.  1933-2: Falling in with the Syndicate
The 1933 story continues with Max’s gang now getting involved with protecting a labor union led by Jimmy Conway O'Donnel from corporate thugs. Noodles, though, is drifting away from the group and trying to get closer to Deborah. He decides to make his grand gesture and offer himself to her.  He rents an entire posh seaside resort during the off-season and takes Deborah there for an exclusive dinner. (RD4)  Deborah tells him,
“You’re the only person that I ever cared about.  But you’d lock me up and throw away the key, wouldn’t you?”
Noodles says, “yeah, I guess so.”  Deborah responds sadly, “the thing is, I probably wouldn’t even mind.”  Later, lying down on the beach. Noodles tells her,
“Every night I used to think about you.” . . . “Nobody’s gonna love you the way I love you.”
But Deborah’s ego refuses to let her abandon her dreams of being a star.  She tells Noodles that despite her feelings, she is leaving the next day for Hollywood.  Noodles is wounded by this rejection.  On the way home in the chauffeur-driven car, after she kisses him, he brutally rapes her in the back seat.  This frustration-driven act of animality ends their relationship, and he silently watches her leave on the train the next day.

Noodles returns to the gang office at the speakeasy, where Max and the others express  their displeasure over Noodles’s having lately neglected their activities (and hence falling short in terms of gang loyalty) while he was attending to Deborah.  This is shown via a dramatically effective silence, with only the sound of his spoon stirring Noodles’s coffee cup, while the gang scrutinizes him suspiciously.  But with Deborah now out of the picture, Noodles re-engages with the gang. 

With US Prohibition coming to a statutory end, Max, always looking for more new and ambitious criminal operations, now concocts a plan for the gang to rob the heavily guarded Federal Reserve Bank in New York.  Both Noodles and Max’s hooker girlfriend Carol (Tuesday Weld) know this will be suicidal, but they are unable to dissuade Max, who appears delusional.  Carol urges Max to save Max’s life by tipping off the police about an upcoming criminal heist so that they can be captured and jailed.  This would entail about 18 months in prison for all of them, but would save them from getting killed in a shootout.  Noodles sees this as a comparatively minor act of betrayal that would actually be a life-saving gift to Max, and he decides to do it (RM4).

At a party later at Fat Moe’s speakeasy, Noodles goes into the office and make that fateful police call that was shown in Act 1.  Just afterwards Max comes into the office and after going ballistic over what appears to be a trivial remark from Noodles, knocks his friend out cold with his gun.

8. 1968-4: The Final Encounters
The scene now shifts to 1968 with Noodles still trying to find out what it means to be “found”. He manages to track down his dream love, Deborah, who is now a prominent stage actress. Appearing in her dressing-room doorway, he asks, “aren’t you going to say anything?” He is still looking for the right response, but once more he doesn’t get it.  He tells Deborah that he has received an invitation to a party from a certain "Secretary Bailey", a wealthy and prominent political figure who is now under criminal investigation.  She urges him not to go to the party, telling him that all we have in life is our memories, and if he goes there he won’t have those anymore.  At this, Noodles tells her that he has already discovered that she has been Bailey’s mistress for years (RD5).

Noodles then goes to the party, and when he meets Bailey in his private room, he sees that Secretary Bailey is in fact Max!  Max/Bailey reveals that he had committed the ultimate betrayal back then – he had organized the shootout that killed his buddies Cockeye and Patsy, had faked his own death, and had stolen the gang’s money to start out a new life with a new name.  He had stolen Noodle’s life – his money, his girl, and subjected him to a lifetime of guilt feelings over the false belief that his phone call had killed his friends.  In fact the massacre had all been arranged by Max, and even the cops had been in on it.  Max’s knocking out of Noodles after that fateful phone call had been his preconceived act to keep his friend out of the upcoming massacre.

Now Bailey (Max) knows that he is targeted to be killed by the Syndicate (he knows too much), and he figures that he is already a dead man. The only honorable death for him is to have Noodles kill him instead – as a vengeful payback for his betrayal of Noodles (RM5). He gives Noodles his gun and tells him to shoot.

However, Noodles refuses to do it, and even refuses to acknowledge the truth of what has been revealed to him.  He tells Max
“Many years ago I had a friend, a dear friend.  I turned him in to save his life.  But he was killed.  But he wanted it that way.  It was a great friendship.  It went bad for him.  It went bad for me, too.”
Noodles walks out a back exit onto the street, where there is garbage truck waiting.  Looking back at Max/Bailey’s house, he sees what appears to be Max come out.  But his view of the man is obscured by the garbage truck, which has begun to move.  After the truck passes, the man is no longer to be seen.

9.  1933-3: The Opium Den
The final scene returns to the time Noodles visited the opium den above the Chinese shadow-puppet theater just after the fatal shootout.  He begins smoking the opium, and with his eyes closed, he smiles.
Once Upon a Time in America’s labyrinthine and multilayered narrative leaves viewers with some open questions, and two of them in particular stand out and have been widely discussed:
  1. What happens to Max at the end of the film?
  2. What is the meaning behind Noodles’s smile in the final shot?
I will come back to these two specific questions below, but first there are some other, more general topics to consider.

As with Leone’s earlier films, the expressionistic decor and atmosphere created by his misc-en-scene is compelling, but Leone's artistic expression now encompasses a new feature: the subtlety of the acting.  The performances of James Wood and Robert De Niro, as the two main figures, are outstanding.  De Niro is particularly good, precisely because he reins in his well-established capabilities for emphatic expression and presents the image of a more thoughtful person trying to figure out how to navigate through a violent and confusing world.  To be sure, Noodles can be deplorably violent when provoked.  But he (as presented by De Niro) also evinces a more hesitant and introspective side in his interpersonal dealings.  This representation of a tentative groping for something help sustain our interest throughout the long story.

In addition, the teenage actors in the lengthy1920 sequence (Act 3) of the film are also very good. They work effectively as an ensemble and create their own little society of teenage hoods. Moreover the physiognomies of several characters that are performed by different actors in the chronologically later sequences are surprisingly well matched, especially those of Fat Moe, Patsy, and Cockeye. 

On a higher plane there is the societal perspective that Leone brings into consideration, and it is interesting to compare Once Upon a Time in America with Once Upon a Time in the West in this respect.
  • In Once Upon a Time in the West there was a somewhat elegiacal representation that the brutal, often savage, individualism that characterized the Old American West was gradually giving way to a more civilized and orderly form of social interaction.  This was symbolized by the relentless westward extension of the railway tracks, which facilitated the introduction of and linkage to more cooperative and normative-based ways for people to interact.  Thus the spread of the railway signified the decline of the Old West, but it also represented something that transformed American society in a positive way..
  • In Once Upon a Time in America, there is an indication that crime was gradually becoming corporatized and directly wired into the business end of American society via the Syndicate.  This transformation was ironically triggered by the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, which prompted the criminal underworld leaders, such as Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, to expand and organize their operations into a crime machine.  The suggestion, as presented in this film, is that loyalty and brotherhood were diminished by this process of syndication. And clearly the infestation of American society (reaching into high levels of government and trade unions) was something that transformed American society in a negative way.
What Once Upon a Time in America is fundamentally about, however, is not just social transformation but something deeper, and perhaps darker. It is about the basic narrative construction of reality [4,5,6]. I have discussed this idea concerning narrative structure of "reality" in connection with reviews about some other films: Memento (2000), Blow-Up (1966), and The Passenger (1975). The basic idea is that we all understand the world around us in terms of the narratives we construct from our experiences or from narratives that we have heard about.  Even our most fundamental sense of temporality is based on narrative, as described by Paul Ricoeur [6].  Most importantly in the present context is the fact that we understand ourselves in terms of the narratives that we construct about ourselves.  Deborah emphasizes this point to Noodles in Act 8 (1968-4: The Final Encounters), when she tells him that all we really have is our memories (i.e. our stories about ourselves).  She is warning him that if he goes to visit Secretary Bailey, his self-understanding (and hence his self) will be destroyed.  

The most essential narratives that we construct about ourselves concern (1) personal relationships: our interactions with the people we hold most dear and (2) social world: our operations and interactions (our “personal journeys”) that establish our standing in the social world around us.  In terms of self-constructed narratives, we can see their operation with respect to the three principal characters.
  • Deborah always wanted to be a star actress.  This was the narrative that she had constructed for herself, and she wasn’t going to allow her personal feelings for a hood like Noodles to interfere with her envisioned narrative scheme. She was determined to live out that “social world” narrative, because that, to her, was her essential nature.
  • Max was an opportunist. Like Deborah, he treasured his personal relationship narrative with Noodles, but he was willing to sacrifice that in order to climb up as a major criminal in his social world narrative.  When things got too hot for him, he chose to construct an entirely new social-world narrative for himself and sacrifice his relationship-narrative with Noodles.
  • Noodles was primarily interested in his personal relationship narratives.  His social-world narratives were of secondary importance.  Thus when he spend 12 years in prison and another 35 years in Buffalo, as far as he was concerned, nothing of much significance happened to him, and so the film doesn’t even cover that material. Although Noodles is shown sometimes to be a killer and a rapist, the film presents his struggles to hold on to his self-narrative based on hi s personal relationships.  When Max presents him with information that would destroy his self-narrative, Noodles resists.  He still reveres Deborah and praises her for having become a star, and he refuses to vengefully kill Max.  To condemn them would be to deny who he is.
In this context we can return to the two open questions I mentioned earlier. 

What happens to Max? 
Since this film is really about narrative, Leone has left the viewer with (at least) three possible narratives to account for what has happened. 
  1. Max kills himself by throwing himself into the grinding augers of the garbage truck.
  2. Max is somehow killed by unseen Syndicate assassins hiding in the garbage truck.
  3. Max makes a previously-planned escape by boarding the garbage truck that is operated by some confederates.  In this scenario, Max is commencing the construction of yet another new self-narrative.
Take your pick.  Ir seems that Leone is challenging the viewer to make out his or her own narrative conclusion on this point.

What is the meaning of Noodle’s smile in the final shot? 
Again, narrative considerations lead to multiple possibilities [7].
  • One could argue that everything that happens diegetically later than the opium den scene is a drug-induced dream on Noodles’s part.  He unconsciously concocts this dream to salve his guilt about his complicity in the deaths of his comrades.  A number of commentators have adopted this viewpoint, but I don’t hold to it..  For Noodles to construct this dream, he would build a new, demeaning narrative that would perhaps be worse than his existing self-narrative.
  • Or perhaps one could say that the opium put Noodles into a conscious state enabling him to see his real future.  This would only be plausible if Noodles were to wake up from the dream and have no memory of it during the chronologically later sequences.
But I think there is a third possibility concerning the meaning of that closing smile that is more compelling. We could construe this shot to be Leone’s cynical final wink to his audience – that life is no more than a Chinese shadow puppet show. By making this parting gesture, Leone is alienating his viewers from their immersion in the foregoing narrative and thereby making a comment about the nature of narrative, itself.

  1. “The National Crime Syndicate”, Wikipedia, 6 March 2015.
  2. Tonino Delli Colli was also the cinematographer for films directed by Roman Polanski, Louis Malle, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Federico Fellini.
  3. The version of the film that I saw for this review was 221 minutes in length.
  4. Roger Schank and Gary Saul Morrison, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (Rethinking Theory)  (1995), Northwestern University Press.
  5. Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality”, in Narrative Intelligence (2003), Michael Mateas and Phoebe Sengers (eds.), John Benjamin Publishing Co.
  6. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vols. I- III, (1983-1985), University of Chicago Press.
  7. Roderick Heath, “Once Upon a Time in America (1984)”, Ferdy on Films (accessed 8 April 2015).

"Gold and Copper" - Homayoun Assadian (2011)

Gold and Copper (Tala va Mes, 2011) is an Iranian film directed by Homayoun Assadian about a young married couple that must come to terms with a devastating personal tragedy. What distinguishes this particular work above others of its kind is the modern religious setting and perspective in which the story is told.  However, depending on your interpretations in this area, some of you may have different reactions to the film.

The film is well made, with excellent camera work, editing, and fine performances. The story proceeds through four phases, with the last act reaching a kind of problematic mental resolution that I will discuss below.

1.  Seyyed Reza Comes to Study in Tehran
The beginning of the film shows Seyyed Reza (played by Behrouz Shaibi), a young seminarian from Nishapur who has come to Tehran with his family to pursue advanced studies in theology under an eminent scholar.  He is accompanied by his wife, Zahra Sadat Moein (Negar Javaherian), and two young children – Atefeh, who is about seven years old, and Amir Ali, who is about one year old.

His title/name of “Seyyed” indicates that he is a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, which gives him special distinction and allows him to wear a black amameh (turban), while all other mullahs and seminarians must wear white amamehs.  At the Tehran seminary he is welcomed as a promising scholar who has been a high achiever at his earlier schools.  When he is offered the opportunity to teach lower-level classes, he declines, saying that he wants to devote all his time to his studies.

When the family moves into their small apartment, Seyyed is troubled to observe that his hoped-for serene study environment may not be so quiet.  His elderly next door neighbour, Ms Azam, lives with her grownup grandchild, Aida, who has Down’s Syndrome and has the habit of playing loud music on her “boombox” portable audio player.

He commutes each day to the seminary with his friend and fellow seminary student, Hamid, who owns a pickup truck and supports himself by working as a free-lance “taxi trucker” (a common pursuit in Iranian big cities).  The contrast between the two is marked: Hamid is earthy and jocular while Seyyed is introverted and sensitive.  When they are driving in his truck, Hamid pleads with Seyyed to remove his amameh, because his clerical appearance will presumably scare away potential customers  – thereby alluding to the common apprehension that the mullahs interfere with the normal lives of the citizenry.

2.  A Tragic Situation Arises
Seyyed Reza’s home life is idyllic.  His wife Zahra is attractive, attentive, and totally devoted to her family. She also supports the family by spending time hand-weaving carpets at a loom in their apartment.  However, she starts suffering from episodes of double-vision, and then she finally collapses at home.  She is rushed to the hospital and held their for tests to be undertaken.  At the hospital a nurse named Sepideh looks scornfully at Seyyed’s clerical garments and ridicules him for probably having neglected his wife and not even having the guts to look her in the eye when they converse.  She derisively refers to him as an “akhund”, an old term for a mullah that modernists now often use to describe meddlesome, backward-thinking clergy.

The next day Seyyed learns from a rather detached, almost unfeeling, doctor that Zahra is probably suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS) a terminal degenerative disease that can lead to total paralysis. 

Seyyed is stunned by this news of his wife’s incurable condition and says to himself, “what will become of us?”  He now has to look after the two kids at home, a task for which he is totally unprepared.  He also has to take up the carpet-weaving work that Zahra had done.  Periodically he looks out of his window at the next door apartment and wonders what Ms. Azam’s life is like looking after her care-needy granddaughter. 

Still, he tries to attend his lectures.  Since he can’t find a babysitter for Amir, he has to take him to the seminary and listen from outside the classroom while holding the infant in his arms.   At one of these lectures, he hears the speaker say,
A kid was falling from the roof, and noone could do anything. One simple rural man who was there raised his head to the sky and said: “God, please save him by Yourself.” The kid stopped in the middle of the air.  People surrounded him and asked, “who are you?’ and “what miracle or power is it?” The old man was shocked.  He said,
“isn’t it normal? To whatever God told me, I said, ‘alright’. And whatever I tell God, God doesn’t say ‘no’”. 
He was just a simple rural man with no studies in philosophy. No knowledge of esoterism, nor a dervish of extreme austerity.  He just had done honestly everything he knew.
This is an example of some of the religious philosophy that underpins the story, and I will call this Sermon #1.  Here the lesson is for people not to engage in deep philosophical speculation; just do as you are told.

3.  Zahra at Home
Zahra is brought home, but she is crippled and miserable.  Crying out, she asks God to kill her so that she die with dignity.  Seyyed merely cautions her not to speak like that, because she will anger God.  After more of Zahra’s crying, Seyyed finally blows up at her.  He complains that her illness has interfered with his precious studies, “and you just whine”, he says. 
“You want to go [back] to Nishapur?  I take you tomorrow and leave you there.”
They do later make up, after Zahra apologises.  Gradually, though, Seyyed seems to be becoming more down-to-earth in connection with his interactions with Aida and others around him.

Later while Zahra is out walking on crutches, the haughty nurse Sepideh pays a personal visit to Seyyed. She had had some personal conversations with Zahra in the hospital and was emotionally affected by Zahra’s deteriorating condition. In particular, Sepideh was moved by Zahra’s belief that “there is happiness in appreciating the small things”. Before departing, Sepideh somewhat presumptiously instructs Seyyed to tell his wife that he loves her.

Back home, Zahra bravely suggests to Seyyed that the two kids will need a new mother to look after them. To her surprise and alarm, Seyyed answers that he has been thinking along the same lines.  When he detects her misgivings, Seyyed accuses her of being willing to leave him all alone to look after things.  Zahra acquiesces and can only glumly hope that the new wife will not be too glamorous.

4.  Conclusion
Seyyed has been diligently working on a hand-woven carpet that he has been contracted to supply. But he has trouble completing the task because of a worsening blurring condition in his own eyes. He delivers the carpet, but tells his contractor that he cannot continue with this kind of work for awhile.  He now has his own seriously deteriorating health problem to deal with.  So he decides to get away from it all for a bit and enlists Hamid to take his family to the countryside for a picnic.

On the outing Zahra invites Seyyed to read to her from the Quran like he used to. He obligingly picks up the Quran and, pretending to read what he cannot see because of his now blurred vision, apparently recites some lines from memory.  Then he tells her what Sepideh had instructed him to say: that he loves her.

In the final scene, Seyyed goes back to the seminary and listens from outside the classroom to another lecture (Sermon #2):
For a long time everyone has been looking for a key to heaven, a treasure or elixir.  They are searching for the secret to happiness in the wrong place. . . . The whole story can be summed up in one word [phrase]: call it a “key” or a “code”. . . . The Great God told Moses this code in one word.: Love for My sake, Hate for My sake.

When saying that the code for acceptance of all works is Velayat [the authority invested in the Prophet and the Ahl al-Bayt (his ordained representatives, such as the Imams)], it means that this loving is for God’s sake. It means whoever God loves, you love them, too. It means loving because of God, growing affection for God’s sake.  Not for superficial beauties, not even for your own heart. Just for God! . . . The more hardship you take for God, the higher your spiritual rank. 

“From the alchemy of love for Thee, my dusty face became glittering gold.  Yes, by the happiness of Thy grace, dust ought be gold.” (from poetry by Hafez)
With these words, the film ends, and we may take them as a final message for Seyyed Reza.  They are presumably presented to help Seyyed, and us, face life’s unfathomable mysteries.  In this connection I will offer three thematic lines of thought for your consideration:  


One might first think that the overall message of the film is just to love no matter what.  But I will argue here that love (at least the way I think of it [1]) is not the focus. Assadian may have intended to have the film's principal message be love, but that is not what comes across.  Seyyed is an honest, well-meaning, and gentle soul, but he is not filled with love. He is benign and dutiful, but detached. We never get the feeling that he truly loves Zahra and deeply feels for her. He is more concerned with how things affect himself.  Even at the end of the film when he tells Zahra that he loves her, he seems to be saying this because he should say it, not because it comes from his heart.  Further evidence that the film's answer and main theme is not just love is given in Sermon #2, when the lecturer intones that the special code is “Love for My Sake, Hate for My Sake”.  Hate has equal place with love in that phrase.  

Submission to Authority
No, the real message of the film seems to be that one should act according to how one has been instructed to act by the religious authorities.  Follow the basic rules, and don't try to make your own interpretations of the sacred texts. Don’t engage in abstract philosophical speculation (Sermon #1), and also don’t consult your own heart (Sermon #2: “not even for your own heart.”). Just do as you are told.  Thus “Love for My Sake, Hate for My Sake” does not mean to embrace all with love; it means to love and hate according to instructions. The more you do that, the more points will be added to your score and the higher will be your "spiritual rank". Admittedly, this idea of submission to religious authority is common to many religions and has its attractions for many people around the world [2,3]. At the end of the film, Seyyed is shown to be servilely arranging the sandals that have been left outside the lecture room. He is showing his submission.

Copper and Gold
The film’s title refers to the medieval notion that alchemy could be used to magically transform copper into gold if one used the proper elixir.  In Sermon #2 reference is made to the idea that the code is like a magical elixir that can metaphorically transform a dusty face into gold.  But how in the larger human context should we take the idea of gold and copper?  Gold is all glitter and decorative; but because it is a "noble metal" that doesn't interact with other materials, it stands apart. Copper is the opposite – its properties make it usefully part of our human engagement with the world.  Seyyed was seen by everyone to be headed in the direction of gold, a treasure. He is striving for his own spiritual perfection, but he is detached. On the other hand, Zahra (brilliantly portrayed by Negar Javaherian) was compassionately engaged with her family and the world.  She was evidently seen as copper.  She served and loved with all her heart in whatever she did.  Gold and copper: which one do you prefer?

  1. One might invoke the abstract love notion of agape, but I will not go into that here.
  2. See the article by Mark Lilla about Michel Houellebecq’s recent novel, Soumission, that concerns this attractiveness in a modern context:
  3. Michel Houellebecq, Soumission, (2015), Paris: Flammarion.

"Devdas" - Bimal Roy (1955)

The story of Devdas, based on the novella Devdas by Bengali writer Sharat Chandra Chattopadhya (1876-1938), has been a popular romantic narrative for the Indian people ever since its publication in 1917 (though the story was apparently composed in 1901 [1]). Just why this tale lingers in the popular mind may be a matter for discussion, but its persistence is undeniable: the story has been filmed at least sixteen times in various languages on the Indian subcontinent – and this doesn’t even count popular variations on its themes, such as Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). Among all those productions of Devdas, however, probably the most well known is the 1955 version directed by Bimal Roy (who had been the cinematographer for an earlier 1936 production directed by Pramathesh Barua).

The basic plot outline is essentially a modern (circa 1900, anyway) tragedy in which a combination of societal restrictions and the protagonist’s characterological flaws lead to ruin.  Viewers may place different weights on those two factors, but to me the primary problem is the latter one – the selfish character of Devdas, himself.  His hesitancy and relational dishonesty are responsible for his downfall.  Indeed a single missed opportunity that cannot be recovered is the main tragic theme of the story, and much of the film wallows in the despair induced by missing that opportunity.  For some viewers Devdas’s lengthy self-pitying may be unbearable, but others may partly identify with him and appreciate the melancholy that the film induces.  So it is not surprising that a key to how much one appreciates this film turns on the performance of Dilip Kumar in the role of Devdas.  I will discuss that issue later on.

Of course, this being a large-scale Bollywood studio production, the film features some comic relief and a number of lilting and romantic songs, all composed by Sachin Dev Burman and dubbed by professional playback singers.  By here not dwelling on this music, I do not mean in any way to downplay its importance.  The music probably constitutes this film’s greatest virtue.

The story of the film passes through four stages, or theatrical acts, covering the life of Devdas.
1.  Childhood playmates
The opening scenes show Devdas Mukherjee and his playmate Parvita (aka Paro) as naughty young children of relatively well-off, upper-caste families living in a provincial town. Devdas, perhaps an early teenager, is particularly obstreperous and resists the authority of his schoolteachers, which only makes his younger friend Paro admire him all the more. At one point we get a view of the boy’s high-handed attitude while he is hiding away from the grownups in a grove on his family’s estate. Paro finds him there and joyfully converses with him; but when she doesn’t obey one of his commands, he rudely slaps her on the face and makes her cry.

These two soul-mates soon make up, though, and they go out to the grove again and sing a beautiful song (dubbed, of course) to the wild birds there.  Devdas’s incorrigible behaviour continues, though, and finally his strict father decides to to spend the rest of his youth in Calcutta and learn some discipline there. 

Now Paro is alone, and she is consoled by a pair of wandering Baul performers who sing to her a song about the legendary romantic pair, Krishna and Radha (Radha expresses sadness in the song, because she misses Krishna).  Then some time passes.

2.  Devdas and Paro
There are several “familiar images” in this film – this is a well-known cinematic technique in which contextual settings that are returned to repeatedly have a cumulative psychological effect on the narrative experience. One of these is the stone stairway leading down to the river bank where Paro goes to fetch water. Another familiar image is the external stairway leading down from Paro’s upstairs room of her family home. On numerous occasions she is seen rushing up or down those stairs during moments of emotional stress.

Anyway, it is now about ten years after Devdas had left for Calcutta (at the end of “Act 1"), and a grown-up and beauteous Paro (played by Suchitra Sen) is seen fetching water at the familiar image river bank.  Her friend comes to tell her that Devdas (Dilip Kumar) has returned  – ““with a cane in his hand, a watch on his wrist and a gold buttons chain.  He has become a real gentleman!”  From Paro’s breathless reaction, it is evident that she has been pining for him.

Paro is now of marriageable age, and with Devdas back in town, Paro’s mother approaches Devdas’s mother in the traditional fashion to propose a marriage between the two (Devdas and Paro are not part of this interaction).  But the Mukherjee family, being wealthier and supposedly of a higher subcaste, rejects the proposal.  Paro’s father is personally affronted by this rejection and angrily vows to marry Paro off to an even wealthier man.  In no time he finds his candidate for Paro – a wealthy older widower from the village of Manepur with some grownup children.

Desperately in love with Devdas, Paro decides to take matters into her own hands and do what is basically unthinkable for a respectable woman in a conservative society. In the middle of night, she sneaks over to the Mukherjee household and goes to Devdas’s room, where she begs him to marry her. Hoping that he will stand up to his parents’s objections and insist on marrying her, she basically throws herself at his feet. But Devdas, no longer the headstrong youth seen in Act 1, seems diffident and helpless.  He worries that Paro’s defiant action will create a scandal.  “Why did you do this?”, he timidly asks, “won’t our head hang in shame tomorrow?” His unresponsiveness at this critical moment is something that he will long regret.

Devdas does go to his family the next day and meekly asks for permission to marry Paro, but his father threatens to disown him for such impertinence.  Angry with this reaction, Devdas abruptly returns to Calcutta without saying goodbye to Paro.

Back in Calcutta, Devdas pens a polite but unromantic letter to Paro wishing that she go on to have good life without him.  There is a key line in the letter whose precise interpretation is significant.  According to the English subtitles, it says,
“But let me make it clear here, I never realised that I loved you.” 
Now knowing Hindi or Bengali (the language in which the original Devdas story was written), I do no know what was expressed precisely.  I have seen two other English translations of this line [2] that are slightly different:
  • "It has never crossed my mind that I desire you."
  • "It has never occurred to me that I desire you."
Depending on how the original line was written, this could be interpreted in two different ways:
  1. Devdas is saying that he has never, ever had any desire for Paro.
  2. Devdas is saying that he had not realised before what he now knows to be true – that, deep down inside, he really does love her.
After posting the letter, Devdas’s conscience scolds him, and he rushes back to his home town to intercept the letter before it is delivered, but he is too late. Paro reads the letter and clearly gives it the first of the two above-mentioned interpretations. 

Devdas goes down to the (familiar image) river bank hoping to meet Paro, where she is fetching water, but she gives him the cold shoulder. In response, Devdas, echoing his earlier teenage outburst of anger, savagely beats her across the face with a long stick, giving her a permanent scar on her forehead.  Though he then repentantly attends to her wounds, he clearly acknowledges that they will be going their separate ways. 

This is the decisive split that takes place only one-third of the way through the story.  Devdas returns to Calcutta, while Paro prepares for her upcoming arranged wedding to the older gentleman.  While she waits, Paro is serenaded by the Baul duo again with another enchanting song about marriage.

3.  Devdas and Chandramukhi
Back in Calcutta, Devdas carouses with his worldly and dissolute friend Chunnilal, who invites him to join him in drinking alcohol and visiting an upscale club that features exotic dancers (nautch girls) offering their “services”. The main dancer is Chandramukhi (Vyjayanthimala), and she seductively serenades him with a song and dance presenting the irresistible offer, ”I Leave it to You”. One of those in attendance is an inebriated Chandramukhi patron (played by Johnny Walker), whose presence in the film is clearly for comic relief [3].

Chunnilal arranges for Devdas to be alone with Chandramukhi, but Devdas angrily walk outs, calling her a shameless prostitute, and leaves her some money without touching her.  But Chandramukhi is nonetheless attracted to Devdas and entreats Chunnilal to get Devdas to come back another time. This he succeeds in doing, and eventually Devdas takes to drinking more alcohol and becomes a regular patron of Chandramukhi’s salon, even though he never touches her and spends his time mooning for his lost love, Paro.  But Chandramukhi has fallen in love with the reticent and unresponsive Devdas, and she sings another seductive song to him, in which she entreats him sweetly to stay awhile: “Oh, heartless one, wait for some time, it’s very difficult out there.”

These scenes of Devdas in Calcutta are interleaved with Paro In Manepur adjusting to married life with her new family.  Eventually both Paro and Devdas are separately informed of the death of Devdas’s father, and they return to their home town to attend the funeral, where they meet briefly. It is evident that the now-married Paro still has strong feelings for Devdas, but Devdas remains aloof in front of her.  Seeing that Devdas has become an irresponsible drunkard, Paro asks him to give up alcohol.  But Devdas refuses her request, telling her that there are some promises that you cannot make, offering as an example the pointedly mocking question: “then can you elope with me tonight?”

4.  Devdas in decline
Devdas returns to Calcutta and looking up Chandramukhi finds that she has given up her profession and wants to devote her life to him. She selflessly acknowledges that he prefers Paro to her and even appreciates how much Paro must really love him – she says, “I came to now from myself how much Parvati must love you.”

Now without her previous steady income, Chandramukhi leaves Calcutta to go live in a provincial dwelling (that turns out to be owned by the Mukherjee family).  But when she hears that Devdas’s heavy drinking is killing him, she rushes back to Calcutta and finds the drunken Devdas lying in a gutter.  When he is taken back to her hotel room, she expresses her continuing love by singing and dancing for him once more. 

The next morning, though, Devdas collapses, and a doctor informs him that he must get away from the temptations of the big city and leave town before the alcohol kills him.  Before leaving, Chandramukhi asks him to promise not to drink, but once more he says he can’t make that promise. 

So Devdas takes off on an aimless train trip across India. Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, he happens to encounter his old pal Chunnilal, who promptly tempts him with alcohol.  This, of course, leads to the final ruination of the self-destructive Devdas.  Now dying, he attempts to go make one final trip to Manepur to see Paro, but he passes away just outside the gate of her estate before she can see him for the last time.
So the final two-thirds of Devdas chart the relentless and miserable decline of the titular character as he drowns his sorrows in insobriety. Devdas never consummates his relationships with Paro and Chandramukhi, in fact he never even embraces them. This hardly seems like a narrative formula that would guarantee widespread success; and yet Devdas remains undeniably popular. Some people see this popularity arising from social factors – the star-crossed lovers were denied their chances of being together by outdated class-bound social restrictions. A variant on this theme is the idea that Devdas’s withdrawal is to be seen as something heroic, a defiance of the subservient babu characterization of Bengali males that arose from the British occupation. In fact one commentator asserted that the film/story’s eternal popularity is due to the sexual chastity of Devdas and Paro (by means of which they assert their independence from colonial and archaic social practices) [2]:
“The enduring appeal of the Devdas narrative inheres not so much in its ability to represent the ‘weak’ hero of Indian cinema but in its subversive potential for indirectly opening up the space for a (tragic) resistance to imperialist gender ideology.”

In fact tn this respect, I have often encountered expressions of the view that the entire Indian culture was emasculated by Western (specifically British) imperialism.  But I don’t agree.  In my opinion, the subtleties of India’s rich and philosophically deep culture are far more complex than can be encompassed by such simplistic schematizations primarily based only on relatively recent (from the broad historical perspective) state-level operations. 

No, what makes Devdas linger in the minds of the public is its expression of romantic longing.  This film is fundamentally about love and how deeply it can affect people, even though they (particularly men) may not discuss these matters explicitly with others.  And this presentation is enhanced in the film by both the cinematography of Kamal Bose and the music of Sachin Dev Burman.  These two go together, because the musical pieces are particularly well staged by Bose’s camera work.  The musical pieces, particularly those associated with the enamored courtesan Chandramukhi, are infused with sweetly passionate yearning for the beloved.

This brings me to the topic of the three main characters – Devdas, Paro, and Chandramukhi – and how they are characterised by the actors who perform the roles. Certainly, one would assume that the main character, the primary center of focalisation, is Devdas, and so the story is really about him. But I would say that the performance of Dilip Kumar in this role is so weak as to almost undermine the whole film. (Note that “Act 1" of the film, showing a teenage Devdas not played by Kumar, is full of vitality and quite different from the mournful despondency established by Kumar in the remaining acts.) It is often the case that the modern cinematic antihero is reticent in the face of social turmoil.  But Kumar’s listlessness in this film is soporific.  When we watch characters played by people like James Dean, Jean-Louis Trintignant, or Robert De Niro, they may often be reticent, but there is some emotive expression displayed. The viewer gets some sense of the unarticulated but internally felt emotions of the characters.  With Kumar here, however, we only get enervating indifference.  Other antiheros are almost always alert to their circumstances, but Kumar here just seems always to be in a fog. 

Kumar’s blank performance reduces the character of Devdas to be that of a hopelessly self-pitying narcissist.  Of course, we know that Devdas is selfish (we all are to some degree), but the extreme selfishness of Devdas here turns us away from any kind of empathy.  He doesn’t seem really to love Paro and want to give himself to her; he merely laments the fact that he couldn’t possess her.  This is the way this idle patrician (he doesn't work; he merely lives off the landlord-collected rents) is with everything. His unrelenting self-obsession made him similarly incapable of responding to Chandramukhi and seeing her as a person.  The fact that he is always clean-shaven and his hair is always similarly coiffed, no matter how degenerate he has become, is a cinematic flaw in cosmetics that only further contributes to his blank-slate persona.  A much better presentation of this kind of character is Guru Dutt’s portrayal in his variant of the Devdas theme, Kaagaz Ke Phool.

On the other hand, the characters of Paro and Chandramukhi are almost pure embodiments of selfless love. The passionate expressions of Suchitra Sen (Paro) and Vyjayanthimala (Chandramukhi) convey all the unfulfilled longings that are absent from Kumar’s expressions. Interestingly, these actresses are not slender nymphs connoting some ethereal affection, but full-figured young women whose expressions and gestures suggest loving physical engagement. They never meet each other in this story (and hence do no know what each other looks like), but on one occasion they happen to pass each other and exchange unknowing gazes while they are heading in opposite directions along the road. Their performances invigorate the film and help sustain interest in the Devdas decline (the final two-thirds of the film) to such a degree that we could say the film is at least as much about them as it is about Devdas.

In the end what redeems this Devdas is the music, the cinematography, and the emotive performances of Suchitra Sen and Vyjayanthimala.  But a more involving and nuanced cinematic expression of these general themes is presented in Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool made a few years later.

  1. “Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay”, Wikipedia.
  2. Poonam Arora, “Devdas: India's Emasculated Hero, Sado-Masochism and Colonialism”, (1997), Jouvert, a Journal of Pre-colonial Studies, ISSN 1098-6944, North Carolina State University.
  3. Johnny Walker had a similar role in Kaagaz Ke Phool.

"The House is Black" - Forough Farrokhzad (1962)

Forough Farrokhzad, the remarkable and groundbreaking Iranian woman poet [1,2], studied to be a filmmaker but only directed one short film, The House is Black (Khaneh Syah Ast, 1962), before her tragic early death at the age of thirty-two. But that 22-minute film by itself stands as a fitting monument to her unique expressiveness – on this occasion in cinematic form [3]. Her poetry expressed strong feminine feelings and passions that were considered beyond the bounds of the restrictive social mores for women [4]. In The House is Black, too, strong feelings about social conditions are expressed, although the subject on this occasion, leprosy, is one that would seem to be remote from our everyday concerns.  And yet Ms. Farrokhzad was able to present this dire subject matter as one of common, indeed universal, concern

Living in a patriarchal society that greatly constrained women’s freedom of expression, Ms. Farrokhzad was, and perhaps still is, a controversial figure in Iranian culture. Married at the age of sixteen, Farrokhzad soon sought her freedom and three years later obtained a divorce, which led to her losing custody of her infant son.  Estranged now from both her own and her former husband’s families, she started working at some odd jobs and began publishing some of her poetry.  In 1958, at the age of twenty-three, she landed a position as a clerk at Gulistan Film Studio and developed a close relationship with its head, film producer and director Ebrahim Gulistan.  Soon she became involved in the studio’s production activities, and she made some trips to Europe to study filmmaking techniques.   Finally in 1962 on the occasion of visiting a leper colony in Azerbaijan, she wrote and directed her major work, the documentary film The House is Black.

As a documentary film, The House is Black is somewhat different from those efforts that more or less attempt to capture “objective reality”, such as have been manifested in the traditions of “direct cinema” and cinema vérité [5]. Though this film is closer to cinema vérité, what we have is not so much a detached depiction of objective reality, but rather an impassioned essay on the part of the poetic narrator. Although what the viewer sees is the direct presentation of the lepers in the leper colony, it is overlaid with voice-over narration of Farrokhzad’s emotive poetry, which, I would say, makes the film thematically interpretable on three different levels:
  1. The first level concerns the immediate and concrete conditions of the lepers in the leper colony – their circumstances of social neglect and misery.
  2. There is a second level or theme concerning how we understand and respond to what we encounter in the world, especially given the fact that there are always mysteries that we can’t explain.  On this level the film contrasts two main approaches  – the religious and the scientific – and how they deal with the scourge of leprosy.
  3. At a still more abstract level there is the despondent idea of leprosy seen as a general metaphor for the human condition.  Under this guise, we are all seen as lost and lowered to the lepers’ level of misery.
The film touches on these three thematic levels as it progresses through various scenes in the leper colony.  Somewhat arbitrarily, I see it moving through three general stages.

1.  “The City of Dreadful Night”
The film opens with a black screen warning the viewer that the forthcoming scenes will be disturbing and ugly.  
‘To wipe out this ugliness and to relieve the victims is the motive of this film and the hope of the filmmakers.”
The first images show a woman looking at her leprosy-ravaged face in the mirror.  This is then followed by shots of afflicted boys and young men shown reading prayers that offer thanks to God for endowing them hands, eyes, feet, etc. that can be used to enjoy God’s creation.  But, of course, these endowments have been largely taken away by disease.  Then we hear a woman (presumably Farrokhzad) in voice-over asking,
“Who is this in Hell praising you, O Lord?”
We have moved from thematic level 1 to level 2.  There are now many more shots of deformed people, some singing and dancing.  But there is also a 90-second shot of a blind man walking outside by feeling his way along an external wall, as the days of the week are recited in endless monotony. These disturbing images of damaged people pass before us accompanied by Farrokhzad mournful poem about this hell (despite the shortcomings of translating poetry into another language, here English, her words are still evocative):
 “I will sing your name, O Lord. 
I will sing your name with the 10-string lute. 
For I have been made in a strange and frightening shape.
My bones were not hidden from you when I was being created. 
I was molded in the bowels of the earth.
In your book all my parts have been written . . .
. .  And your eyes, O Lord, have seen my fetus. 
I won’t see the spring. 
These lines are all that will remain. 
As the heavens circles, I fell into the bedlam.
I’m gone.
My heart is filled with sorrow. 
O Muslims, I am sad tonight.”

2.  How to Deal with this Affliction? 
But then we return to thematic level 2, as images of rational attempts to treat leprosy are contrasted with shots of people fervently reciting by rote prayers to a presumably absent or non-answering deity. The suggestion is clear: the rational approach takes positive steps, while blindly and stubbornly following ancient liturgical practices leads nowhere.

Shots are shown of leprosy sufferers being treated by medics and being fed at food canteens (within the colony) that are accompanied by a male voice-over that rationally discusses leprosy. Although leprosy is chronic and highly contagious, it is a disease that can be treated and cured (it’s progress can be arrested) by antibiotics.
“When the leper is cared for early, he can be treated completely.”
[Not discussed in this film, but worth noting in the context here are some other facts about leprosy.  About 95% of people are believed to have a natural immunity to the leprosy pathogens [6].  The number of leprosy cases worldwide is apparently a few hundred thousand, down from an estimated 5.2 million in 1985 (presumably this number was much higher at the time of this film’s production in 1962) [7].  But although the numbers of cases are in decline, there are still hundreds of thousands of people newly afflicted with this curse – in 2012 there were over 200,000 new cases of leprosy reported [8].]

Again Farrokhzad’s poetic laments are in the background:
“I said if I had wings of a dove,
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would go far away and take refuge in the desert.
I would hasten my escape from the windy storm and tempest. 
For I have seen misery and wickedness on earth. “

“The universe is pregnant with inertia .
. . and has given birth to time. 
Where would I escape from your face? 
And where would I go from your presence? 
If I hang on to the wings of the morning breeze
And reside in the deep of the sea,
Your hand will still weigh on me.
You have made me drunk with indecision. 
How awesome are your deeds!”

“I speak of the bitterness of my soul. 
I speak of the bitterness of my soul.
When I was silent, my life was rotting
. . . from my silent screams all day long.
Remember that my life is wind.
I have become the pelican of the desert,
. . the owl of the ruins,
And like a sparrow, I am sitting alone on the roof..”

“I am poured out like water
. . . as those who have long been dead. 
On my eyelids is the shadow of death. 
Leave me. 
Leave me, for my days are but a breath.
Leave me before I set out for the land of no return,
. . . the land of infinite darkness."

3.  We are All Like Them
The latter stages of the film show the deformed, crippled people exhibiting normal emotions –  having fun, playing games, etc. Crippled parents are shown attending to young children (some of whom may not be afflicted with leprosy). Other scenes show women, having what appear to us as deformed faces, delightedly grooming themselves. There is even what appears to be a wedding ceremony involving these people celebrating a matrimonial union.  These people, in these moments at least, appear happy. 

We have to ask ourselves, are they really deformed, or just different from us?  Are not our impulses to turn away from these strange faces similar to the way so many people reject others from different races? 

There is then a well-edited scene of some boys joyfully playing with a ball. There is also a classroom scene where young boys are asked by the teacher to name beautiful things. A boy responds by mentioning items from the natural world. But when another boy is asked to name ugly things, he responds with “hand, foot, head, . . . “  He knows that his human reality is deformed.

The closing mood is one of sadness and despair.  We are on thematic level 3 now.  Why all the suffering?  Why are there such deformities?  Why are we lost in this world? 
“Alas, for the day is fading,
the evening shadows are stretching. 
Our being, like a cage full of birds,
Is filled with moons of captivity. 
And none among  us knows how long he will last. 
The harvest season passed,
The summer season came to an end,
. . . and we did not find deliverance. 
Like doves, we cry for justice.
. . and there is none.
We wait for light and darkness reigns."

“O overrunning river driven by the force of love,
. . . flow to us, flow to us.”
See this movie.

  1. Farrrokhzad's poem, “The Wind Will Carry Us”, was an inspiration for the themes and title of Abbas Kiarostami’s film The Wind Will Carry Us (1999).
  2. See Michael Hillmann, A Lonely Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry (1987), Three Continents Press, cited in “Films/Theater”, Forugh Farrokhzad, (http://www.forughfarrokhzad.org/filmstheatre/films.htm).
  3. You may find The House is Black on YouTube – try here
  4. "Forough Farrkhzad", Iran Chamber Society, 4 March 2015.
  5. I have discussed the traditions of “direct cinema” and cinema vérité in connection with my reviews of Louis Malle’s Phantom India (L'Inde Fantôme, 1969) and Michael Moore’s SiCKO (2007).
  6. Iara de Messias-Reason, Peter G. Kremsner, and Jürgen F. J. Kun, "Functional Haplotypes That Produce Normal Ficolin-2 Levels Protect against Clinical Leprosy", The Journal of Infectious Diseases, (2009), Oxford Journals,  2009:199, pp. 801-804.
  7. “Leprosy Fact sheet N°101", World Health Organization (January 2014).
  8. Ibid.