“Not One Less” - Zhang Yimou (1999)

Zhang Yimou has displayed his cinematic mastery across a range of expressive styles – from  
All of them have their artistic merits, but one of the best of them all was the naturalistic Not One Less (Yigè Dou Bù Néng Shao, 1999), which was based on Shi Xiangsheng's 1997 story "A Sun in the Sky".  Filmed on location in a rural village in Hebei province and in its nearest metropolitan center, Zhangjiakou, which is a city of roughly 800,000 people about 180 km northwest of Beijing, Not One Less was shot entirely with inexperienced amateur actors whose real-life identities matched the roles they played. 

This was the first Zhang Yimou film to receive government support and endorsement [1], and in connection with this backing, the film’s critical reception was initially affected by some critical concerns over the degree to which it was a vehicle for the Chinese government propaganda [2].  Perhaps due to these concerns, Not One Less was not admitted into the 1999 Cannes Film Festival prize competition.  Indeed, many of the early reviews of the film focused on sociopolitical aspects of the story, which I think is a misguided view, and I would agree with Zhang’s assertion that the film is apolitical [2].  What this film does cover, as does most of Zhang Yimou work, are universal aspects of human existence – and that is what gives it its trans-cultural appeal.  It did go on to win the Golden Lion (the prize for best film) at the 1999 Venice Film Festival, and it has received numerous critical plaudits [3,4,5,6].

The story of Not One Less is about a teenage schoolteacher whose naive and stubborn efforts to solve a problem she runs into grow to reach epic proportions.  Along the way, the teacher’s pupils, the people she encounters, and even the teacher, herself, are transformed by the modest and relentless sincerity of her persistence.  The rewards of holding fast to the pursuit of your goals is one lesson conveyed in this film.  But ultimately the film also does have something profound to say about human society.  It vividly demonstrates that (even naive) faith in human cooperation through direct engagement can work wonders for all concerned.  And in fact this is the greatest and most rewarding lesson that a teacher can give to her students.

The narrative of Not One Less progresses through five phases of the earnest schoolteacher’s quest.

1.  A Substitute Teacher Arrives at the School
At the outset, 13-year-old Wei Minzhi (played by Wei Minzhi) is installed as the temporary substitute teacher at the tiny Shuiquan village one-room primary school (1st – 4th grades).  She is to substitute for the elderly Teacher Gao (Gao Enman), who needs to go away for a month to attend to his dying mother.  When Teacher Gao sees how youthful and unprepared Wei Minzhi is – she hasn’t even gone to highschool – he protests to the village mayor (Tian Zhenda).  But the mayor replies that given the poverty in the area, this is the best he can come up with. 

So resignedly, Teacher Gao tells the new teacher just to assign the students the daily task of copying down Chinese characters from the class instruction book and to be careful not to waste chalk used for the class chalkboard.  He also tells her that a major school problem is students dropping  out – at the start of the school year, they had 40 students, and now they are down to 28.  He will  give her a 10-yuan bonus to her 50-yuan overall salary if she can get through her month without losing any more students.  “Not one less!” he sternly tells her before departing. 

When Wei Minzhi begins teaching, it is clear that she is completely in over her head.  The class is unruly and ignores her hesitant and timid remarks.  In particular, the class troublemaker, 11-year-old Zhang Huike, boldly challenges her authority.  In an ensuing class scuffle the teacher’s desk is overturned, and much of the precious chalk is crushed underfoot.  So Wei Minzhi orders the class to do their copying assignment and then leaves them by themselves and sits outside guarding the door to prevent any of the students from running away. It is evident that her main concern is not providing good instruction but instead just ensuring that the class size is “not one less” so that she can secure her bonus money.

Soon, however, Wei Minzhi is alarmed when a public sports official arrives at her school to recruit her fastest running girl student to enrol in a sports academy.  Mayor Tian assures Teacher Wei that this departure won’t threaten her bonus money from Teacher Gao, but Wei is not taking any chances.  She hides the student away from them.  However, Mayor Tian bribes the naughty Zhang Huike to reveal where the athletic student is hiding, and the athletic girl is taken away (without getting permission from the girl’s parents, by the way).  It is evident here that money is a driving force for both Wei Minzhi and Zhang Huike.

2.  Another Student Goes Missing
Shortly thereafter, Teacher Wei comes into her classroom to see that Zhang Huike has impudently seized a girl classmate’s diary and is reading aloud to the rest of the class her expressed concerns about the crushed classroom chalk and the general unruly tenor of the class.  Wei is moved by these words and forces chief culprit Zhang Huike to apologize.  This is the first time that Wei has looked at things from beyond her own selfish interest.

The next day, however, Zhang Huike is missing from class, and Wei learns that Zhang’s ill and indebted mother had ordered him to go to the city and find work.  Now Teacher Wei’s class size is down to 26, and she realizes she is not living up to her promise to Teacher Gao to sustain the school.  From here on Wei’s altruistic instincts begin to dominate.  She resolves to go to Zhangjiakou and fetch the boy so that he can continue his education. 

However, Mayor Tian refuses to fund Wei’s trip expenses to go Zhangjiakou, and Wei realizes that she will have to find her own means to get there.  So she consults her class for help, and this is where the film makes a beautiful turn.  Although Wei is naive and inexperienced, when she works with the class in pursuit of a noble goal, they all share what little they know and learn from each other.  Teacher Wei and her class become a team, and this is, in fact, the best way to learn.

After pooling their knowledge, they conclude, wrongly as it turns out, that a bus ticket to Zhangjiakou would cost 3 yuan, so Wei would need 9 yuan to go there and bring back Zhang.  Wei suggests that the class further pool their resources by each contributing 50 cents, yielding a total of 13 yuan.  But one of the students reports that they can collectively earn the money by moving bricks at the local brick factory.  So the class “team” joyfully rushes off to the brick factory and enthusiastically shift 1,500 bricks for storage.  The brick factory manager is not happy with this work, but when he sees their eager persistence, he donates 15 yuan to the class.

Now with a surplus of 6 yuan above their presumed required trip expenses, Wei takes her class to the local store to drink some Coca-Cola.  One can of Coke costs 3 yuan, and this gives the viewer an idea of just how puny are the sums of money under consideration.  With only two cans of Coke available for them, the class again goes into collective sharing mode, with each student taking a couple of sips.

When they all go to the bus station, though, they learn that a one-way ticket to Zhangjiakou actually costs 20.5 yuan, so Wei doesn’t have enough money.  But she won’t give up.  After trying (at the class’s suggestion) unsuccessfully to sneak onto a bus, Wei winds up walking and hitchhiking all the way to Zhangjiakou.

3.  In the Big City
In the big city there are lots of people, but they are only connected by rules and mechanical protocols.  Wei tracks down a middle-school student, Sun Zhimei, who had come to the city with Zhang also looking for work, but it turns out that the girl had lost track of Zhang upon arrival in the train station.  At a cost of 2.5 yuan, more than Sun’s daily wage, Wei enlists her support to help her find Zhang.  They spend a long time looking around the train station, but their efforts are fruitless and Sun goes back to her own work.

Then Wei notices a missing-person poster and decides to make some of her own.  With all of her remaining 6.5 yuan, she buys a pen, ink, and 100 large sheets of paper to make the posters.  Then she diligently sets about hand-producing one hundred posters.  After spending hours on this activity in the train station, an attendant walks by and scoffingly tells her that her efforts are useless.  So Wei asks the attendant what he thinks she should do instead.  As he reflects on this problem, the attendant tells her
  • people are too lazy to respond to a poster;
  • the police are too busy to look for the boy;
  • a newspaper ad will be too small to be noticed.
Her only hope, he tells her, is to go to the TV station.  Although the TV station is a bus ride away, Wei is now broke and walks all the way there.

4.  The TV Connection

So Wei arrives at the hub of our modern-day dream of human connectedness: electronic media.  The TV station is fenced off and has an admission gate, and when Wei tries to enter, the gate attendant tells her that she needs prior permission and an ID.  This is another example of how  our modern efforts at human connectedness are rigidly restricted by rules and protocols. 

The ever-persistent Wei keeps trying but gets nowhere, and finally the exasperated gate attendant tells the penniless girl that the only person who could authorize her entry is the TV station manager, a man who wears glasses and who works on the third floor.  Until then Wei will have to wait outside the gate.  So Wei goes outside, and the next four minutes of screen-time show her for the rest of the day relentlessly asking every man passing out of the gate and wearing glasses whether he is the station manager. 

Meanwhile Zhang Huike is shown aimlessly walking the streets and looking for food handouts.  Finally a café owner offers him a full meal in exchange for doing some chores.  Wei is also shown in the evening looking for leftover food scraps before finally settling down to sleep for the night on the sidewalk outside the TV station gate.

The next morning Wei resumes her persistent querying outside the gate, and her endless efforts are finally brought to the attention of the station manager.  He sees the opportunity to present a human-interest story and has Wei inserted as a guest on their TV feature show.  On the air, Wei is hopelessly tongue-tied; but when the show hostess urges her to look into the camera and imagine she is talking directly to the lost Zhang, she tearfully begs Zhang to come back to her.  Zhang happens to see Wei on the TV at the café, and he, too, breaks down in tears.  Wei and Zhang are finally reconnected.  This is the dramatic highpoint of the film, and as Peter Rainer remarked, “it's one of the most improbably satisfying love scenes on film” [4].  Note that this is not romantic love, of course, but rather an altruistic and compassionate love that is an inherent part of everyone’s nature [7].

5.  The Return
The scene shifts quickly to shots showing Wei and Zhang on a bus joyously returning to Shuiquan village and accompanied by a TV crew and a truckload of gifts from well-wishers who had seen the TV show.  The whole village comes out to welcome them.  The final shots show  Wei back with her students in the classroom and working together in Wei’s pedagogically effective mode of “collective discovery” teaching.  Only this time they are working with some of the heaps of brightly colored chalk that has been given to them.

Not One Less stands as a classic, because it reminds us of important and universal aspects of human existence set in an authentic context.  Critics A. O. Scott and Jugu Abraham have rightly compared it to and set it along side of Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) as one of the great examples of neorealist expression [3,6]. Neorealism, as earlier presented by filmmakers from Italy and Iran – and here by Zhang Yimou – is not just intended to present documentary reality.  Its overarching mission is to present fundamentals of human existence in authentic social contexts.

In this respect the film’s primary themes are not really concerned with a sociopolitical critique or support of Chinese government policies.  That is merely a diversion that has distracted some critics.  Instead, the film serves as an authentically dramatic reminder of some more wide-ranging and universal concerns:
  • As we all know, sometimes our focus on money can divert us from the real path we need to take.
  • New forms of media can sometimes make direct and authentic human engagement more possible – if we focus our usage of these media in the right direction.
  • The mechanization of modern life has had a tendency to sap it of its humanistic elements. Sometimes a more unsophisticated and naively direct approach can lead to more authentic encounters.
  • The importance of collective cooperation is all too often neglected in our modern world that is dominated by selfish utilitarianism.

  1. “Not One Less”, Wikipedia, (25 October 2018).   
  2. “Not One Less, Critical response”, Wikipedia, (25 October 2018). 
  3. A. O. Scott, “`Not One Less': A Substitute Teacher Is Put to the Test”, The New York Times, (19 February 2000).                   
  4. Peter Rainer, "Not One Less", New York, (n.d.).   
  5. Kevin Lally, “Not One Less”, Film Journal International, (2 November 2004).   
  6. Jugu Abraham, “31. Chinese filmmaker Yimou Zhang's ‘Yi ge dou bu neng shao (Not One Less)’ (1999): A marvelous neo-realist Chinese film, ideal for family viewing”, Movies that make you think, (22 February 2007). 
  7. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Back Bay Books, (2016).    

“Kankaal”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Sunil Subramani (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Kankal” (“The Skeleton” [1], 1892) is a ghost fantasy about a young widow and her tragic notions about love, life, and death.  This story served as the basis for the 21st episode, “Kankaal” [2], of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode scripted by Bijesh Jayarajan and directed by Sunil Subramani.

Like many of Tagore’s stories covered in this series, “Kankaal” concerns the perspective of a young woman living within the confines of a restrictive social sphere.  This is told in a story-within-a-story format.  In Tagore’s original tale, the outer story is told as a first-person oral account of a college student who encounters a ghost in the form of a young woman who then orally relates to him, and the reader, her own story.  In the filmed version rendered by Bijesh Jayarajan and Sunil Subramani, these two accounts are partially dramatized.  The core element, of course, is the ghost’s account and the wry and melancholic fashion in which she tells it.

The story begins with new college student Arup (played by Veer Rajwant Singh) arriving at his over-subscribed hostel looking for the room he thought he had arranged.  The proprietors hastily give him their last room, one that was last occupied by a deceased medical student.  When Arup goes to the room, he is disturbed to find it disheveled and with a skeleton hanging in the clothes cupboard.  After the embarrassed proprietors clean out the room and remove the skeleton, the travel-weary Arup settles into the bed and starts to snooze.

However, he is soon startled by the sounds of an invisible female ghost who tells him she has come looking for her skeleton.  Arup is frightened and tells the ghost that her skeleton has been taken away.  But the ghost decides to hang around anyway – she has been dead and weeping for thirty-five years and misses talking to people.  So she says she is going to insist on telling him her story, and he will just have to listen. 

Up to this point we are more than one-third of the way through the tale, and this telling of the outer-story has been rather awkward and less than compelling.  It is only when we get to the inner story of the ghost that things start getting interesting.

Arup now looks out his window and sees that the sun is shining, giving him and the viewer the hint that he has entered into the ghost’s story (or perhaps into a dream).  The ghost, Mrignoyonee [3] (Anupriya Goenka), is now visible to Arup and the viewer, and we can see that she is a  beautiful young woman.  We will also soon see that in the dreamworld that Arup has just entered, he is invisible to others in that world – he is an invisible witness – but the film viewers often see him standing unnoticed in the background of a scene.

Mrignoyonee  tells him that she died when she was twenty-six, an age that I (and also F. Scott Fitzgerald [4]) feel is when youthful and mature beauty and ability combine to reach their pinnacle.   Arup is stunned by her loveliness, and it is evident that Mrignoyonee is fully aware of her magnetic allure.

Mrignoyonee begins her tale by telling him that she was forced into marriage as a child-bride to an older man she abhorred.  After his early death, she was condemned by Hindu custom to live in isolation from the rest of society and only wear drab, white mourning clothes.  So she wound up living as a recluse with her brother, a committed lifelong bachelor, in his wealthy estate home.  In her lonely world inside the estate walls, she had noone, not even have girlfriends, and she had nothing to do but obsess over her own beauty and imagine how the whole world – man and nature – was overcome by the magnificence of her pulchritude.

Interrupting this narcissistic solitude, Mrignoyonee’s brother’s only friend, Shekhar (Kunal Pant), who is a medical doctor, comes by their house one day when Mrignoyonee happens to have a fever, and he gives her some treatment.  She is delighted to have a man observe her beauty, and she assumes that the doctor is staggered, like all men must be, by her overwhelming charms.

Interestingly, Shekhar wears horned-rim glasses, which is a remarkably common garb among principal male actors in this whole Tagore series.  I am not sure if this is done to accentuate visible distinctiveness among the male principals, or if it is done to accentuate the contrasting comeliness of the female lead.  In any case, both of these effects are in evidence here, and the dreamy recounting of Mrignoyonee’s flirtation-inspired interactions with the doctor is the most enchanting part of this film.

Soon Mrignoyonee is flirtatiously inventing all sorts of little maladies in order to attract the doctor’s attentive treatments.  Her only regret is that as a widow, she cannot dress up in fine clothes in order to further dazzle him. 

Eventually, Shekhar is invited by Mrignoyonee’s brother to open up a clinic in their estate, and when he does this, it gives Mrignoyonee further opportunities to hang around Shekhar and flirt with him.  Soon Mrignoyonee starts frequently visiting Shekhar’s clinic office and asking him questions about the chemicals and serums he has stored there.  In particular, she was curious about the ones, like arsenic, that could be lethal in higher doses.  This reflected the fact that Mrignoyonee’s life had been so isolated that she could only think in terms of abstractions – like love, life, and death.  Shekhar would politely answer her questions and put up with her flirtatious pestering.

But Shekhar, while evidently charmed by Mrignoyonee, always maintains his courteous distance.  Mrignoyonee just assumes that the combination of Shekhar’s inherent timidity and social conventions stop him from expressing his true feelings about her.  However, Shekhar is not the romantic type, and he has more practical things in mind.  

One evening Mrignoyonee sees Shekhar going out in a carriage, and she discovers that he has gone out to arrange his marriage to a wealthy heiress.  Hiding her disappointment at this disturbing news, Mrignoyonee gets her brother to stage a lavish wedding party prior to the wedding ceremony.  At the event, when her brother and Shekhar are sharing a drink, she secretly spikes Shekhar’s glass with a lethal dose of arsenic.  Then she dresses up, for once, in colorful wedding clothes and goes out into her private garden and lays down on the ground after having consumed her own potion.

At this point in the story, we now see Mrignoyonee and Arup, the two silent witnesses, standing in the garden and looking down at her double in the form of the unconscious, prostrate body of Mrignoyonee, the dramatic subject of her own tale.  Mrignoyonee ruefully reflects to Arup on the failure of her narcissistic scheme to join up with Shekhar in an unfettered afterlife.  Instead, her journey into death only led to lifeless emptiness, and Shekhar was nowhere to be found.  When she next woke up, she tells him, she found that she was a lifeless skeleton being examined by medical students.

With Mrignoyonee’s story now completed, Arup wakes up in the morning alone in his room.  There is no sign of the beautiful ghost who had enchanted him overnight with her dolorous tale.

Tagore’s story, as told through Mrignoyonee’s almost self-mockingly narcissistic recounting, has its satirical elements, but it has a serious side to it, too.  Apparently Indian widows were traditionally kept in such confinement as to be almost cut off from life, itself.  This was an aspect of the general restrictions traditionally placed on women that Tagore criticized.  The way out of this cultural morass was not to seek narcissistically focused salvation in some imagined afterlife; it was better to embrace life and seek whatever improvements can be made through vital human engagement.

This production, “Kankaal”, of the story does have some weaknesses.  The outer story of Arup is too mockingly exaggerated and overacted; and this makes that story, which excessively occupies more than one-third of the running time, uninteresting.  In addition, this portion annoyingly employs a shaky hand-held camera to depict Arup’s agitated state when he encounters the ghost.  However, these defects are more than compensated for by the lyrical and dreamy presentation of Mrignoyonee’s story, which features the hypnotically ambiguous performance of Anupriya Goenka in that leading role.  Her dreamy and enticing eyes and smile are suggestive of that mysterious other world from which she comes.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Skeleton”, Mashi and Other Stories, The Literature Network, (1892/trans. 1918).   
  2. Durga S, “The Uncanny – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (9)”, Writersbrew, (9  March 2016).        
  3. At one point, though, she refers to herself as “Roopmati”.
  4. In Tender Is the Night (1934), Fitzgerald commented at one point, “he was twenty-six years old, a fine age for a man, indeed the very acme of bachelorhood.”

Sunil Subramani

Films of Sunil Subramani:
  • "Kankaal"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 21 – Sunil Subramani (2015)

“Nostalghia” - Andrei Tarkovsky (1983)

Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) was a gifted filmmaker noted for his uniquely expressive style.  Working in Russia under restrictive conditions, he was only able to make seven feature films over his last twenty-four years, but each was a fascinating and challenging work of cinematic expression.  In particular, Tarkovsky was progressively more sensitive to the possibilities of cinematic expression transcending the limits of textual expression and directly invoking the wider range and complexity of human consciousness.  Increasingly, his films became more and more attempts to directly represent his own personal feelings, with minimal reference to schematic models or thoughts. One of the most extreme examples of this tendency was his penultimate film, Nostalghia  (1983).

I have discussed Tarkovsky’s aesthetics in connection with his earlier films – Ivan's Childhood (1962), Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), The Mirror (1975), and Stalker (1979)  – and we could probably say of these, the film most directly comparable to Nostalghia is his most inward and personal work, The Mirror.  Both of these films abandon conventional plot structures entirely and seek to conjure up a state of mind.  In this connection, Tarkovsky once commented that his aesthetic intentions for cinema lay in an off-the-beaten-track direction [1]:
“I don’t follow a strict narrative development and logical connections. I don’t like looking for justifications for the protagonist’s actions. One of the reasons why I became involved in cinema is because I saw too many films that didn’t correspond to what I expected from cinematic language.”
And he added on another occasion that what he wanted was to capture a state of mind [2]:
“I was not interested in the development of the plot, in the chain of events – with each film I feel less and less need for them. I have always been interested in a person’s inner world, and for me it was far more natural to make a journey into the psychology that informed the hero’s attitude to life, into the literary and cultural traditions that are the foundation of his spiritual world.”
You might think, okay, so Tarkovsky wanted to abandon plot structures, but surely he must have had specific ideas that he wanted to present to his viewers.  We don’t always have to restrict ourselves to stories; we can just present our thoughts and ideas.  But think again, because Tarkovsky also wanted to eschew explicitly articulated ideas in his artistic creations, too.  He had higher aims, as he once remarked [3]:
"The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good."
And presumably Nostalghia is an instantiation of these anti-narrative inclinations of Tarkovsky’s.  Nevertheless, there is something of a story to Nostalghia.  It concerns the activities of a Russian poet and writer, Andrei Gorchakov, who has come to Italy to do research for a book he intends to write on the experiences of an 18th century Russian composer who lived in Italy for a few years.  While in Italy, Gorchakov feels ‘nostalghia’ – a custom term for the special longing Russians feel for their homeland when they are away.  But more generally, Gorchakov feels alienation, and that is the primary theme of this film.  Alienation emerged as a major cultural theme, and a key notional element of Existentialism [4], in the twentieth century, and it has represented the quizzical sense of absence and frustration for some people that has come along with modernity [5].  I have earlier discussed how alienation has been a particularly important characterological theme in film, notably in the works of Michelangelo Antonioni, and we can say that Nostalghia is yet another work that adds to this aesthetic collection [6].  Concerning his artistic intentions on these  matters, Tarkovsky was explicit [2]:
“Ultimately, I wanted Nostalghia to be free of anything irrelevant or incidental that would stand in the way of my principal objective: the portrayal of someone in a state of profound alienation from the world and himself, unable to find a balance between reality and the harmony for which he longs, in a state of nostalghia provoked not only by his remoteness from his country but also by a global yearning for the wholeness of existence.”
For this voyage into existential alienation, Tarkovsky chose some collaborators with experience in this area.  His screenplay collaborator was Tonino Guerra, who had co-scripted a number of films with Antonioni: L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L'Eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964), Blow-Up (1966), and Zabriskie Point (1970).   And he also cast in a prominent role, Erland Josephson, who appeared in 14 Ingmar Bergman films.  Tarkovsky tells this tale with 
  • careful attention to the insertion of atmospheric ambient sounds and 
  • many moody 3-to-4-minute tracking and very slow zoom shots,
which, despite their often seemingly random appearance, must have required careful planning in order to execute effectively. 

The story of Nostalghia, such as it is, passes through four phases.

1.  Andrei and Domiziana in Italy
As already mentioned, the Russian writer Andrei Gorchakov (played by Oleg Yankovsky – he played the father of the main character in Tarkovsky’s The Mirror) has come to Italy to write about an 18th century Russian composer, Pavel Sasnovsky, who lived in Italy for a few years before returning to Russia (where he committed suicide).  Gorchakov is accompanied by his attractive translator, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), and we soon see that these two embody contrasting types.  Eugenia embraces modernism; while Gorchakov is alienated from the world he sees around him.  When she invites him to go look at Piero della Francesca’s famous painting “Madonna del Parto”, he glumly responds by saying, “I’m tired of these sickeningly beautiful sights.”  Later when Eugenia is reading some poetry (written by Andrei Tarkovsky’s father, Arseny Tarkovsky) in translation, Gorchakov remarks that “poetry is untranslatable, like all art.”  This suggests to us that Gorchakov perceives insurmountable cultural barriers as part of his nostalghia problem.

Later they check-in to a hotel, where in a long 4-minute shot Gorchakov is shown listlessly falling asleep in his bed and lapsing into dreams (shown in sepia-toned monochrome images).

2.  Domenico
The next day Gorchakov and Eugenia stop by St. Catherine’s hot pool, where people seeking cures for their ailments wade in the steaming water.  The people in the pool gossip about a man, Domenico (Erland Josephson) walking by the side of the pool, who they say is mad.  They say that in anticipation of the apocalypse, he once kept his wife and children locked up in his home for seven years.  Curiously, Gorchakov takes an interest in the reclusive Domenico and wants to talk to him.  After some persistence, Gorchakov arranges to meet Domenico in his severely leaky home, where he listens to the alleged madman’s odd pronouncements.  Domenico tells him,    
“Before, I just wanted to save my family.  Now I want to save the whole world.”
Domenico then tells Gorchakov that if he can walk the length of St. Catherine’s Pool holding a lighted candle, it will save the world.  But the people there assume he is crazy and won’t let him enter the pool, so he begs Gorchakov to assume his world-saving task.

3.  Eugenia and Dreams
Back with Eugenia at the hotel, Gorchakov tells her about Domenico’s lighted-candle task.  But Eugenia, who has been hoping that Gorchakov would take a romantic interest in her, doesn’t want to hear  about his odd obsessions.  In a dramatic four-minute monologue, she complains that he is only interested in Madonnas and not interested in engaging with real life.  Afterwards, they engage in a bitter quarrel.

After Eugenia storms out, Gorchakov, who seems to be in declining health, lapses into further sepia-toned dreams, which indicate that Gorchakov identifies himself with Domenico.

4.  Desperation
With Eugenia having left him, Gorchakov decides to return home.  But just before he is to leave,  he gets a phone call from Eugenia, who is now in Rome.  She tells him that Domenico has come there and is making cryptic speeches at a city monument.  She also says that Domenico wants to  know if Gorchakov has carried out the lighted-candle ritual in the pool.

We now move into parallel action, with Domenico shouting out his concerns for a fallen world and Gorchakov headed for St. Catherine’s Pool to carry out his postponed ritual.  Domenico’s raving remarks implicitly contain elements condemning rationalism and modernity for promoting individualism and disconnecting people from an organically connected world.  Some examples of this are:
    “Society must become united again instead of being fragmented.”
    . . .
    “Just look at nature and you will see life is simple.”
    . . .
    “We must go back to the main foundations of life.”
Then he pours gasoline over his body and immolates himself.  So the character of Domenico emerges as the bearer of Tarkovsky’s main message, and Tarkovsky has commented about this [2]:
“The character of Domenico, at first sight somewhat puzzling, has a particular bearing on the hero’s state of mind.  This frightened man to whom society offers no protection, finds in himself the strength and nobility of spirit to oppose a reality he sees as degrading to man. Once a mathematics teacher and now an ‘outsider’, he flouts his own ‘littleness’ and decides to speak about the catastrophic state of today’s world, appealing to people to make a stand. In the eyes of ‘normal’ people he appears mad, but Gorchakov responds to his idea—born of deep suffering— that people must be rescued not separately and individually but all together from the pitiless insanity of modern civilisation…”
Finally, in the film's penultimate, nine-minute, shot, we see that Gorchakov has arrived at the pool when it has been drained for servicing.  Nevertheless, he painstakingly and desperately carries out the ritual, anyway; and he finally manages to place the lighted candle he has been carrying at the far end of the pool just before collapsing.

The final shot seems to be a dream image showing Gorchakov sitting on the ground with Domenico’s dog in an imaginary setting that combines a modernist foreground with a cathedral backdrop – seemingly the desired metaphorical resolution of the divisive cultural forces that had driven his symptoms of alienation.  Concerning that mysterious final shot, Tarkovsky had this  to say [2]:
“I would concede that the final shot of Nostalghia has an element of metaphor, when I bring the Russian house inside the Italian cathedral. It is a constructed image which smacks of literariness: a model of the hero’s state, of the division within him which prevents him from living as he has up till now. Or perhaps, on the contrary, it is his new wholeness in which the Tuscan hills and the Russian countryside come together indissolubly; he is conscious of them as inherently his own, merged into his being and his blood, but at the same time reality is enjoining him to separate these things by returning to Russia.”

Overall, Nostalghia is so slow-moving and enigmatic as to sometimes seem almost catatonic.  Nevertheless, it has a haunting feeling and addresses an important malaise of our times [7].  As critic Kalvin Henely pointed out [8]:
“Tarkovsky’s films remain so important today because of their ineffable spirituality, which has all but vanished in today’s technological world marked by information, science, and an increasing detachment from nature.”

  1.  Patrick Bureau,  “Andrei Tarkovsky: I Am for a Poetic Cinema” (1962), from Andrei Tarkovsky Interviews, (John Gianvito, ed.), University of Mississippi, Jackson, (2006), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky NOSTALGHIA (1983)”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXXV:8), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY, (17 October 2017).   
  2. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, University of Texas Press Austin (1986, 2000), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky NOSTALGHIA (1983)”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXXV:8), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY, (17 October 2017).   
  3. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, University of Texas Press, Austin (1986, 2000), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky The Mirror 1974”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (IX:13), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (16 November 2004).    
  4. Steven Crowell, “Existentialism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (9 March 2015).   
  5. David Leopold, “Alienation”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (30 August 2018).       
  6. See, for example, the following articles that discuss alienation on this site:
  7. J. Hoberman, “A Man Without a Nation, in Italy”, The New York Times, (24 Jan 2014).   
  8. Kalvin Henely, “Nostalghia”, Slant, (30 May 2013).    

“Touch of Evil” - Orson Welles (1958)

Orson Welles’s film Touch of Evil holds a special place in the hearts of many film noir enthusiasts as one of the most flamboyant examples of the genre.  In many ways its visual and dramatic extravagance remains uneclipsed even today.  The film was not much of a hit at the box office when it was first released in 1958, due in part to Universal Studios’ cutting down and re-editing the film prior to its release, much against the director’s wishes.  There have been some “restored” versions more appealing to cineastes since then, but even that bastardized first release was widely appreciated in Europe.  It won the International Critics Prize (the top award) at the 1958 Brussels World Film Festival.  Since then, Touch of Evil’s reputation has steadily grown, and it is now ranked as an all-time classic [1,2].  In the British Film Institute’s most recent polls of film directors and critics concerning the all-time greatest films, it was ranked 57th on the BFI’s 2012 Critics’ Poll [3] and 26th on the BFI’s 2012 Directors’ Poll [4].

The story of Touch of Evil, which is loosely based on the novel Badge of Evil (1956) by Whit Masterson, concerns murder and corruption in two adjacent border towns straddling the U.S.-Mexican border.  And besides incorporating the usual noirish equivocations concerning honesty, loyalty, and justice, it also included provocative slants on ethnic and social stereotypes.  Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty told this dark story in a dramatic fashion, with their expressionistic, black-and-white rendering of mostly nocturnal scenes featuring many wide-angled moving-camera shots and quasi-threatening low-angled closeups.

And interestingly for cinema buffs, Welles included a number of famous actors in small roles.  Besides the casting several Welles favorites, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Ray Collins, in small character roles, he also had bit parts for the following well-known faces:
Joseph Cotten, Keenan Wyn, Dennis Weaver, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eva Gabor, Mercedes McCambridge, and Marlene Dietrich (!)
But what makes the telling of this complicated tale particularly effective is the way it continually crisscrosses between the narrative threads involving its four principal characters [5].  These four  characters are each almost social stereotypes that symbolize a dramatic theme of the story:
  • Police Captain Hank Quinlan (played by Orson Welles).  He is a crafty but unprincipled cop who will use any means to ensure that the person who his intuition convinces him is guilty will be convicted of the crime.  Although Quinlan, as the main character in this piece, would be expected to embody the highest standards of American justice, he in fact is shady, prejudiced, unscrupulous, and repulsive – the kind of person that simple-minded and prejudiced Americans (you can guess whom I mean) think is common in Mexico.
  • Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston).  He is a highly principled Mexican narcotics officer dedicated to seeing that justice is served in accordance with the full letter of the law.  Mike Vargas is also handsome, romantic, chivalrous and heroic – the kind of person that typical audiences might assume to embody the “American” ideal.
  • “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Akim Tamiroff).  Although he is an American citizen, he is a Mexican gangster and current leader of the Grandi family criminal syndicate.  He is slimy and ruthless, the epitome of the stereotypical Mexican villain.
  • Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh).  She is the newly married American wife of Mike Vargas.  A beautiful and elegant blonde, Susie is probably another, in this case dreamlike, stereotype for a Latin American population (Janet Leigh may have been the ultimate Caucasian beauty icon – she was to serve in a similar role soon in Psycho (1960).)  Like her husband, Susie is loyal, brave, and a believer in justice.  But she also may hold her own personal stereotypical views, as evidenced when she calls a young Mexican man she meets, “Pancho”, which is perhaps an allusion to a character in the popular U.S. television series The Cisco Kid (1950-56).
The film begins with one of greatest-ever opening shots – a more than three-minute crane-and-tracking shot that begins in one country and finishes in another.  It starts with a time-bomb being surreptitiously loaded into the trunk of a car in a Mexican border town and then tracking the car as it is slowly driven through the border control into the U.S.  Midway through the shot, it shifts its focus to a newly married couple, Mike and Susie Vargas, who are walking in the same direction across the border.  When the couple are embracing on the U.S. side of the border, the shot ends with the sound of an explosion.  The time-bomb has gone off, destroying the car and its two occupants, one of whom was a wealthy American, Rudy Linnekar.
So there is a murder case to solve, and Mike Vargas, knowing that the bomb was planted on the Mexican side of the border, feels he has to take part in the investigation.  He sends his wife Susie back across the border to wait in their hotel while he looks into the matter.  This separation of Mike and Susie introduces two parallel narrative threads that will intertwine throughout the rest of the film. 

At the scene of the crime, Police Captain Hank Quinlan shows up to take charge of the investigation.  Quinlan is an obese and disheveled slob with an overbearing personality who relies on his fabled intuition to solve crimes.  He is always attended to by his loyal assistant Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), whose life he once saved by taking a bullet intended for Menzies.  In this case Quinlan immediately intuits that sticks of dynamite were used to commit the crime.  He also adopts a scornful, dismissive attitude towards Vargas, whom he considers to be wandering outside his proper jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, as Susie Vargas returns to her hotel, she is accosted by young thugs from the Grandi family who have been sent to her by “Uncle Joe” Grandi.  Joe Grandi’s brother was earlier arrested and is facing trial in Mexico City based on evidence supplied by Mike Vargas, and Joe wants to intimidate Susie into getting her husband to back off from the case. 

So early on we see that Mike Vargas faces two hostile adversaries, one challenging his sense of justice and the other threatening his personal life.  These two parallel struggles will gradually dominate the plot more than the original narrative quest, which was to solve the car-bombing crime.

With their honeymoon plans disrupted, Mike consoles Susie and concedes to her that “all border towns bring out the worst in their country”.  He reminds her of the positive side of things, that the U.S.-Mexico border is “one of the longest borders on earth. . . . an open border”, and he wants to work to keep things that way.  Susie then insists that she wants to stay near her husband while he pursues his investigation on the U.S. side of the border.  So he installs her and leaves her alone in a mostly vacant motel on the U.S. side that is tended by a tremulous night manager (Dennis Weaver). The night manager’s hyper-twitchy behavior only adds to Susie’s, and the viewer’s, nervousness.  Little do they know that this motel is owned by the Grandi gang.

As the car-bombing investigation proceeds, Quinlan identifies a prime suspect: a young man named Sanchez who had just secretly married the victim Rudy Linnekar’s daughter.  But during the search of Sanchez’s apartment, Vargas discovers by accident that the incriminating dynamite sticks that were found there must have been just recently planted there by someone.  He suspects Quinlan of planting the false evidence in order to frame Sanchez.  In fact Vargas begins to wonder if Quinlan has been doing this for years – framing his Mexican suspects with false evidence in order to guarantee criminal convictions.

At this point Grandi privately approaches Quinlan seeking a clandestine alliance.  After all, he tells him, they both need to get rid of their common enemy: Vargas.  Then the scene shifts to Susie Vargas’s motel room, where she is attacked by Grandi family hoods, who then drug her and abduct her to a hotel room across the border.  We can presume that Quinlan has bought into Grandi’s plan to frame the Vargeses as drug pushers and addicts.  Although we know that Mike Vargas is a straight-arrow, the prevailing American prejudice against Mexicans makes Grandi’s plan feasible.

Later that evening we get an insight into what drives Quinlan.  At a bar, a half-drunk Quinlan melancholily talks to his long-time comrade Pete Menzies about his life’s great tragedy.  His wife was strangled thirty years ago, and despite Quinlan’s relentless efforts, he was never able to catch the perpetrator.  And he concedes that strangling is the most effective way to commit a murder, because the murder weapon is so hard to identify.  Since then, he tells Menzies, he has always made sure that no culprit (identified presumably by his intuition) could ever go free.

Unaware of the dire straits his wife is in, Vargas gets access to past court records in order to confirm his belief that Quinlan has been framing people for years by planting evidence that is discovered by his unsuspecting and loyal workmate, Menzies. 

While Vargas is trying to convince Menzies of his boss’s guilt, Quinlan goes to the Mexican hotel room where Grandi is waiting with the drugged Susie Vargas lying passed-out on the bed.  Things have presumably worked out in accordance with their joint plan.  But then Quinlan double-crosses Grandi by strangling him with Susie’s stocking.  The idea is apparently to pin the murder on the presumed drug addict Susie. 

Eventually Menzies becomes convinced of Quinlan’s duplicity.  The key piece of evidence was his finding in the just-seen hotel room Quinlan’s walking cane, which his somewhat inebriated boss had left there.  So Menzies agrees to cooperate with Vargas in order to collect convincing evidence of Quinlan’s guilt. Their plan is to wire Menzies with a hidden microphone that can be used to record self-incriminating comments by the unsuspecting Quinlan, while Vargas will be lurking nearby with a radio-connected tape recorder.  The scene is now set for the famous nighttime tracking sequence, in which Quinlan walks by a canal spouting his customary  contempt to Menzies, with Vargas surreptitiously trailing them at a close distance in the shadows. 

The final shots are dramatic. Quinlan’s cunning enables him to figure out that Menzies is bugged to record his voice; and after killing Menzies, he almost saves himself, but not quite.  Vargas winds up with the evidence needed to absolve himself and his wife of any wrongdoing.  At the close, Quinlan’s old flame, the brothel madam Tana (Marlene Dietrich, still looking seductive at the age of fifty-six), is asked if she has any comments on the man she knew, and she says sadly and wearily,
“He was some kind of a man! . . . . What does it matter what you say about people?”
So Touch of Evil was really concerned with the struggle between Quinlan and Vargas, which amounted to a contest between upholding the community-based laws (Vargas) or sidestepping those laws in order to follow one’s selfishly-construed version of what is right (Quinlan).  The original issue of solving the car-bombing crime had faded into the background.  Indeed in the end we learn that Quinlan’s hunch was correct – Sanchez ultimately confessed to the authorities offscreen that he was the one who had put the sticks of dynamite in Linnekar’s car.  But the point is that Quinlan was defying the way the way the legal system is supposed to work by planting false evidence in order to frame his suspect. 

The legal system is one of the four pillars, which I have labeled “RMDL” (the legal system is the ‘L’ in this acronym) [6], of rationalist-based modern societies that have arisen in the last couple of centuries.  And it is the U.S. that is supposed to be the flagship country of this form of government.  So in Touch of Evil the irony – one that jabs at some American ethnic prejudices –  is that it is a U.S. citizen who defies RMDL and a Mexican citizen who staunchly upholds it. 
Welles spins this utterly dark tale in mesmerizing film noir fashion by continually shifting back and forth among his four iconic characters – Quinlan, Mike Vargas, Susie Vargas, and Grandi.  One might criticize that these four characterizations are exaggerated and schematic.  But their emphatic representations are just the right dramatic elements Welles needed to sustain his dark, complex, and expressionistic narrative.

  1. J. Hoberman, “Jokers Wild”, The Village Voice, (15 September 1998).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “Touch of Evil (1958)”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com (13 September 1998).     
  3. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).     
  4. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).    
  5. Tim Dirks, “Touch of Evil (1958)”, AMC Filmsite, (n.d.).   
  6. See my discussions of RMDL, which can be accessed by clicking on the tag  “RMDL” under the “LABELS” section of this site.