“The Hundred-Foot Journey” - Lasse Hallstrom (2014)


The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014) is an American-made dramatic comedy set in France.  Based on the novel of the same name by Richard C. Morais, it tells the tale of the cultural clash and rivalry that takes place in a French town when an Indian restaurant is opened across the street (100 feet away) from an upscale, haute-cuisine local restaurant.  Directed by veteran Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, 1999; Chocolat, 2000), the film has been a big commercial success.

The story begins with the Kadam family migrating to Europe after (as shown in flashbacks) an unruly mob in India that was embroiled in some unspecified political conflict had burned down their family restaurant in Mumbai.  With Mama Kadam having been killed in the blaze, the family now consists of the vigorous patriarch, Papa Kadam (played by Om Puri), along with his five children. Due to the happenstance of their family touring van breaking down on the road near a picturesque, provincial French town, they decide to settle there.  The middle-aged, but still energetic, Papa Kadam soon decides to buy a defunct restaurant site and turn it into his own style of Indian restaurant.

The problem with Papa Kadam’s plan, as his young-adult children point out to him, is that French people don’t customarily eat Indian cuisine, and the site he has chosen for his restaurant is directly across the road from an established French restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur ("The Weeping Willow"). The restaurant is owned and run by a haughty middle-aged woman, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), who treasures her sense of class and the fact that her restaurant is the only one in the area that has the difficult-to-achieve Michelin one-star rating.

So the stage is now set for an all-out “war” between the two competing restaurants, which represent contrasting extremes along several lines – food, culture, cosmopolitanism.  The narrative focalization centers on three key figures:

  • Madame Mallory, the culinary perfectionist who represents the refined and disdainfully exclusivist French.
  • Papa Kadam, the never-say-die competitor, who represents the boisterous and scruffy Indians.
  • Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), the second-eldest son of Papa Kadam and the chef for his restaurant.  Partly because of his romantic interest in Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), a French girl who works as a sous-chef for Madame Mallory, he politely tries to be a peacemaker and find an accommodating common ground between the two seemingly irreconcilable competing camps.

The comedic elements of the film arise from the various belligerent ploys undertaken by the two warring sides.  Throughout much of it, most of the characters, especially Madame Mallory and Papa Kadam, are shown as exaggerated stereotypes, with only Hassan appearing to be a normal and compassionate human being.  This naturally makes him the hero in this tale. 


The escalating conflict culminates when Jean-Pierre (Clément Sibony), the belligerent and racist chef for Madame Mallory, arranges for some thugs to torch the Kadam restaurant, just as had happened back in Mumbai.  This regrettable event, which results in serious injuries to Hassan, is a step too far for Madame Mallory.  She summarily dismisses her chef and tries to make amends with the Kadam family.  Eventually, she even hires the talented Hassan, at a good salary, to be her chef to replace Jean-Pierre (thereby inducing him to take a “hundred-foot journey”). This rapprochement, combined with the emerging culinary talents of Hassan, leads to aspirations for Le Saule Pleureur to achieve a second Michelin star.

To be sure, The Hundred-Foot Journey is one of those “food movies”, and by this I don’t just mean a movie in which food is an important factor in the story; I mean a movie that is virtually about food.  Throughout the film there are closeup shots of either French or Indian cooks preparing their scrumptious dishes with carefully chosen spices.  It doesn’t show the food being delivered to the clientele or being eaten, just the obsessive preparation of it.  There is a tradition of such films, including Babette’s Feast (1987), Like Water for Chocolate (1992), and Chocolat (2000), and they seem to attract a devoted following of food (preparation) lovers.  I am not a devotee of this genre, but I do have a particular liking for Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), and The Fish Fall in Love (2006).

Outside of the scope of the genre, the film has some limitations.  The characterizations are a bit too over-the-top to have any believability, although both Helen Mirren and Om Puri (who has appeared in an astonishing total of about 280 mostly Bollywood films over his career), do very well within the limitations of their roles. For the one role that is more nuanced and realistic, that of Hassan Kadam, there is a different issue. Manish Dayal affects something of a cherubic demeanor in this role, but his persistent stubble-beard looks slovenly and put me off. I know there is a whole sector of society that likes to see guys sporting a perpetual 3-day facial hair growth, but to me it displays an attitude and represents a weak attempt to project manhood.

The cinematography in the film is variable. For example, the two fire-bombing scenes when the two Kadam Indian restaurants are torched on two separate occasions are so chaotic and stroboscopic as to be just confusing blitzes of flashing lights.  On the other hand on the occasion of when Papa Kadam is having his new restaurant built, there are two sequential tracking shots – one of 40 seconds and the following one of 66 seconds – that are truly wonderful. Actually these two shots are almost seamlessly put together and work as a single roving witness, as the camera almost hypnotically follows the multifarious activities undertaken by the various family members.

Anyway, if you truly are a food-movie fanatic and you are really into food, then you would probably know that the competition was always likely to be one-sided.  After all, is there any other national cuisine in the world as rich and tasty as Indian food?
★★½

Jean-Luc Godard

Films of Jean-Luc Godard:

“Breathless” - Jean-Luc Godard (1960)

Jean Luc-Godard’s first feature, Breathless (A Bout de Souffle, 1960), was not the first French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) film, but it soon became its signature work.  Made on a low budget and shot entirely on the street and in urban locations, the film proved to be a box-office sensation and had over two million admissions in France alone. Not only that, it made the New Wave an international brand and catapulted Godard and others associated with the film’s production, such as Raoul Coutard and Jean-Paul Belmondo, to worldwide stardom.

In fact much of Breathless’s fame today is tied up with its New Wave origins, a major current of which came from a clique of ambitious young critics writing for the anti-establishment film commentary magazine, Cahiers du Cinema [1,2].  These critics dismissed mainstream French studio films of the day and championed, instead, film noir, a term they gave to moody B-Grade American crime films of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, which they felt had more panache and psychological authenticity.  This group – which included Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette – then went about putting their critical theories into practice by making their own independent and “rebellious” feature films.  (Other young French filmmakers of that period who were not part of the Cahiers du Cinema clique but who came to be associated with the New Wave included Alain Resnais, Louis Malle, Jean-Pierre Melville, Agnes Varda, and Jacques Demy.)

Of all those Cahiers du Cinema critics, Godard was probably the most argumentative and uncompromising, so it is perhaps not surprising that his film stood out and was even more distinctive than those of his colleagues.  Thus Breathless is often seen today as a historical landmark that affected the course of cinematic expression.  Nevertheless, the film is not just of historical interest, in the fashion, say, of The Birth of a Nation (1915), but still has an electric vitality when viewed today [1].

Although the New Wave critics were avowed auteurists, I believe that the success of Breathless is not solely due to Godard’s undoubted abilities. There was a fortunate concurrence of disparate talents that helped make the film the masterpiece that it is [3,4,5].  For one thing, there were contributions from his Cahiers du Cinema colleagues.  Claude Chabrol, who had already had success with two features, served as a technical advisor for the film.  In addition the original story and treatment came from Francois Truffaut, who was then a good friend of Godard’s and was fresh off the success of his own debut film, The 400 Blows (1959).  Truffaut’s scheme told the noirish story of a young criminal’s desperate efforts to avoid police pursuing him and gather up his girlfriend in Paris so that the two of them can make a getaway to Rome.  This treatment provided Godard with a basic narrative structure for the film – which was not the kind of thing, it seems, that naturally emerged from his own inspiration and was not so apparent in his subsequent films.

Also noteworthy, and crucial to the film’s dramatic impact on audiences, was its gaudy cinematography.  The first thing that stands out is the proliferation of jump cuts – jolting cuts without changing the frame – that would normally be regarded as film-editing faults in other contexts.  Here, however, the jump cuts work to positive effect, and help give the film a sense of a hectic, out-of-control haste that is constantly jumping the story forward.  This is presumably what is alluded to by the film’s French title, “A Bout de Souffle”, which literally in English means: “Out of Breath” and which would probably have been a better English title for the film.

Further accentuating the nervousness created by the jump-cuts were opposing moments of slowed-down pace due to long-duration tracking shots of conversations mostly between the  two main characters.  These slow-moving passages in the middle of hectic circumstances with the clock ticking made for a maddening stop-and-go tempo that makes the viewer even more mindful of the criminal’s dire situation.


Now you might say that this back-and-forth temporal movement between skittishness and languor represented a brilliant piece of mise en scene on Godard’s part; but I wonder if perhaps this ingenious effect was actually an accident of Godard’s somewhat ad hoc production circumstances. Although Godard was writing the script each day as the film was being shot, the shooting was carefully planned and all the dialogue was pre-specified and not extemporaneously created.  In fact the film was shot without sound, and all the pre-specified dialogue was dubbed in later.  Godard was fortunate to have hooked up with the resourceful young cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, who came up with practical ways to photograph Godard’s scenes in crowded locations.  Now while it is known that Coutard made innovative use of hand-held photography (not common in those days with the relatively heavy equipment in use), this does not mean that Godard and Coutard were winging it as they proceeded filming the script.  In fact the moving camera shots appear to have been carefully planned, with some of them lasting as long as three minutes.  These moving camera shots appear when the two main characters are engaged in key conversations.

However, during the final editing stages of the film, as Roger Ebert has pointed out, Godard discovered that the film was 30 minutes too long and needed to be shortened [6].  Godard couldn’t go ahead and cut up the lengthy moving-camera shots – they needed to be retained intact.  And he didn’t want to remove the dialogue that he had written.  So he was left with cutting a lot of the film’s transitions, creating all those jump cuts.  If Ebert is correct, then we are led to believe that the film’s nervous back-and-forth tempo was something of an accidental creation.

However, we shouldn’t let Breathless’s innovative cinematography, whether accidental or planned, dominate our perspective on the film.  The really fascinating thing about this work  is not so much the cinematography but more the edgy and winding romantic relationship of the two main characters.

Breathless was not the first film depicting the always fascinating situation of a romantic young couple on the run from the law, but it may have been the most inspired.  Its predecessors in this camp include Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948) and Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950).  And we can see strong traces of Breathless in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1966), Terrence Mallick’s Badlands (1973), Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974), and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974) [7].  In all these films there is a sense of fatalism and romantic desperation.  One of the two romantic characters in these narratives is totally reckless, with the partner helplessly following along and unable to prevent their ultimate destruction. 

In Breathless the romantic couple is played by Jean-Paul Belmondo (in the role of Michel Poiccard) and Jean Seberg (as Patricia Franchini), and the personae of these two actors very much dominates the film’s presentation.  Belmondo was 26 years old at the time, and his expressive face and sinewy physique gave a kinetic and emotional image to his character.  Seberg was only 21, but already a Hollywood star.  Her cool beauty and impenetrable innocence provided the perfect foil for Belmondo’s romantic shadow boxing.  One of the film’s strong points is the way Godard visually dwells at length and in repeated closeups on Seberg’s paradoxical allure.

In fact it is worth discussing their two characters a little further.

  • Michel Poiccard
    He is perpetually rehearsing small narratives that he imagines to be glamorous decorations to his character.  In this connection he likes to mug and make outlandishly emotional facial expressions, in the fashion of how a teenager might make faces while looking at his or her image in the mirror.  As part of his attempts at self-glorification, he admires film noir and the screen personality of Humphrey Bogart, as well as gaudy, gas-guzzling American sedans.  His daredevil self image leads him to hot-wire and steal cars whenever he needs some transportation.  This recklessness makes him attractive to girls but is also fatally self-destructive.  Despite his adolescent and self-indulgent behaviour, though, Michel has the capacity to feel love and jealousy.  His braggadocio posturing is a cover for his personal insecurity, and he cannot help revealing his emotional vulnerability. 
     
  • Patricia Franchini
    As played by Jean Seberg, who was born and grew up in Iowa, Patricia is very much a US Midwestern girl – in fact Seberg’s Midwestern accent calls attention to her distinctively non-European character.  By this I mean that Patricia is friendly and easy to approach, but difficult to know well.  Emotionally, she remains aloof even while she engages in friendly interactions.  She is looking for someone to capture her, to conquer her, and until then she is just along for the ride and can detach herself from a relationship at a moment’s notice.  In fact at one point she tells Michel,
        “I stayed with you to see if I was in love with you. . . .
        and since I’m being cruel to you, it proves I’m not in love with you.”   
The story of Breathless proceeds through three main stages.
1.  Michel Comes to Paris
In the first sequence the viewer is introduced to Michel Poiccard, a low-level hoodlum in Marseilles who hot-wires a parked Oldsmobile and heads north.  On the way driving while toying with his pistol, he talks to himself about his plans to head for Paris and pick up some money owed to him by someone, and then convince a girl, Patricia, to run away with him to Rome.  Along the way some highway cops start chasing him for speeding, and Michel shoots and kills one of them when he is approached.  This is all told visually with jump-cuts and at breakneck speed.

Upon arriving in Paris, Michel first steals some money from a casual girlfriend.  Then he tracks down Patricia, who is hawking the International Herald Tribune along the Champs Elysees, and as they talk, the pace dramatically slows down.  There is a long 3:20 tracking shot of the two of them talking, as Michel tries to convince Patricia to run away to Italy with him.  It seems that they had recently had a brief affair in Nice and slept together for a few nights.  Patricia clearly finds Michel to be cute, but she is noncommital.

Things speed up again as Michel attends to the matter of picking up some money owed to him by a person named Berruti.  While moving about the city, he also notices a newspaper headline reporting that the road cop-killer has been identified as Michel Poiccard.

2.  Michel and Patricia Together

Patricia goes back to her hotel room and discovers that Michel had stolen her room key at the front desk and is waiting for her in the room. Now the pace slows down again. This is a 23-minute scene in the small hotel room, which despite the cramped dimensions, features a series of long tracking shots – one of them a 3:20 shot of the two of them talking on the bed.  Most of this scene is small talk, but it importantly reveals the evolving relationship and the disparate personalities of Michel and Patricia.  At one point she mentions that grief is better than nothingness (i.e. death), and he responds by saying that he would choose nothingness: “I want it all or nothing”.  They make love that night, and the next morning attend to their respective obligations – he has to get his owed money, and she needs to conduct an interview for a journal she sometimes works for.

3.  To Get Away
Patricia’s immediate assignment is to attend a press conference held for a trendy novelist, Parvulesco (played by noted film director Jean-Pierre Melville). This interview scene serves as something of an intermezzo in the film and gives Godard the chance to offer up some of his provocative bon mots about the world through the mouth of the novelist. While Patricia offers up some sensible queries, the other interviewers only want to ask the novelist titillating questions about how men and women posture towards each other.  Parvulesco pontificates that  men want only women, and women want only money.  When Patricia asks him what is his greatest ambition, he answers that it is "to become immortal and then die".

Now the pace quickens again. After her interview assignment, Patricia is approached by the police, who inform her that Michel is a wanted murderer.  As with other such dramatic moments in the story, Patricia shows very little emotion upon hearing this. She soon helps Michel elude the cops, and as they drive away in another stolen car, she is surprised to read in the newspaper that the cop murderer Michel is a married man.  When she blithely asks him about this, he responds with equal equanimity,
“She dumped me. . . Or I dumped her, I can’t remember.”
They eventually find Berruti for Michel’s money, but the cops are closing in.  All the way along, Patricia has been agonizing over whether she really loves Michel or not. The closing sequences provide for an answer to that question.

Of the comparable lovers-on-the-lam films, perhaps the closest match to Breathless is Bonnie and Clyde. This is not too surprising, since Bonnie and Clyde's script writers, David Newman and Robert Benton, were fans of Breathless and even approached Godard about directing their script. And we can see definite traces of Michel Poiccard’s (Jean-Paul Belmondo’s) boastful vulnerability in Clyde Barrow’s (Warren Beatty’s) personality in Bonnie and Clyde.  But I think an even closer overall character match might be with the Kit and Holly characters of Badlands.  In that latter film, Holly is closer to Patricia’s personality than Bonnie is.

Many people have been attracted to Breathless’s hip references to American culture and general self-parody. They see the film as Godard’s taking the opportunity to call attention to how media inordinately shapes modern culture and its increasing tendency towards cliche and vicarious disengagement.  In addition to cultural references, there are celebrity cameo appearances. Besides the already-mentioned participation of film director Jean-Pierre Melville, there were several other figures in the cast from general French New Wave circles, including Philippe de Broca, Jacques Rivette, Jean Douchet (a Cahiers du Cinema film critic), and Jean-Luc Godard, himself, who briefly appears as a pedestrian that fingers Michel to the police.

All of this puckish cultural referencing was presumably part of Godard’s evolving and not entirely clear criticism of cinematic narrative, itself.  When Godard was asked at the time of this film’s production how he felt about cinema, he replied [1],
"I have contempt for it [the cinema]. It is nothing. It does not exist. Thus I love it. I love it yet at the same time I have contempt for it."
Godard was vigorously opposed to the traditional conventions of studio-based narrative films.  Over the following few years Godard made a succession of films that displayed a progressive retreat from cinematic narrative and looked more like cinematic essays concerning a theme, an aesthetic evolution that he explicitly embraced in an interview during that period [4].  In fact after the 1968 political events in France, his movement from dramatic narrative to visual political tracts became even more pronounced.

However, this evident retreat from narrative (in general) may have been an effect of a more specific, but deeper, underlying cause: the fact that Godard was clearly a frustrated romantic.  In most of Godard’s movies, starting already with Breathless, there is a depiction of the romantic narrative being crushed by an unfeeling world ruled by capricious, uncontrollable forces.  Of course some cynical hedonists might well be perfectly happy with that state of affairs.  Why subject yourself to the fantasy-laden constraints of selfless love?, they might ask – just seize whatever pleasures may be at hand.  But Godard is not one of these types.  He is clearly frustrated, and he forcefully expresses his frustration, it seems to me, over the fact that the romantic narrative is ultimately false – it is only short-lived and inevitably doomed to fail.  He tells us this over and over in his films.

In this regard of romantic narrative, it is interesting to compare Godard with filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, who also depicted the sadness of failed, unattained romance. Wong, the Master of the Broken Heart, often presented impassioned yearning for romantic fulfilment and the pain that comes from unrequited love. But Wong clearly believes in love, indeed he celebrates it with his visual poetics. He simply shows the inconsolable anguish that comes from the beloved’s being unattainable.  Godard, on the other hand and unlike Wong, had lost his belief in the possibility of love, and he expressed his unhappiness about it.  He did this best in Breathless.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. John Powers, Breathless, The Criterion Collection, (8 July 1992).
  2. Phillip French, Breathless Continues to Shock and Surprise 50 Years On, The Guardian, (6 June 2010).
  3. Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Conversations About Great Films: Breathless, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (26 February 2002).
  4. Jean-Luc Godard, “Interview with Jean-Luc Godard”, Cahiers du Cinema 138, (December 1962), reprinted in Godard on Godard, Tom Milne (ed., trans.), The Viking Press, New York, 1972, pp. 171-196.
  5. Dudley Andrew, “Breathless Then and Now”, The Criterion Collection, (28 February 2014).
  6. Roger Ebert, “Breathless”, Roger Ebert.com, (20 July 2003).
  7. Interestingly, most of these directors were relatively youthful when these films were made, and one could argue that these examples represented the respective high points of these directors’ careers.

Andrei Tarkovsky

Films of Andrei Tarkovsky:

“Andrei Rublev” - Andrei Tarkovsky (1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky directed only seven feature films over the course of his career, but even with his second film, Andrei Rublev (aka The Passion According to Andre, 1966), his reputation was rising to epic proportions.  In fact the circumstances surrounding the production of Andrei Rublev were contributing factors to Tarkovsky’s cult-like status, since the authoritarian communist government of Soviet Russia did all it could to censor and suppress the work. 

Born in 1932, Tarkovsky studied filmmaking at the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) and began his filmmaking career during the “Krushchev Thaw” (1953-1964) period  of the Soviet Union, when censorship and suppression of expression were relaxed somewhat.  It was during this period that the script for Andrei Rublev was approved and production was begun.  But by the time the film was ready for release, the Krushchev Thaw was over and Tarkovsky’s image as an uncompromising iconoclastic [1] artist in conflict with the oppressive Russian authorities began to emerge [2].  I pass over details concerning the Russian censorship issue here, but you can find more information in Hamish Ford’s article in Senses of Cinema [3].  When a copy of the film was finally brought to the Cannes Film Festival in 1969, it won the Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique (FIPRESCI ) prize, and the film is still hailed today as a towering masterpiece by many critics [4].  Because of the Russian government’s persistent censorship activities [5], there are several extant version of the film today, but I recommend that you see the original director’s cut in Cinemascope that is 3 hours and 25 minutes in length.

Before discussing the specifics of Andrei Rublev, however, it is worth considering Tarkovsky’s characteristic mise en scene and aesthetic ideology (see, for example [6]). Like his Hungarian contemporary, Miklos Jancso, Tarkovsky constructed his films out of very long takes, which involved intricate and continuous tracking, panning, and moving crane shots in combination with carefully prescribed actor choreography. It was said that Tarkovsky typically would spend two days planning for a single one of these shots before the actual take.  Many of these continuously moving shots are about 90 seconds in length, with some lasting as long as three minutes.  Often a single shot will start in closeup on a particular character, then track far away to cover a more distant scene of many people, and finally close in on that same original actor as he moves into an entirely new location.  Tarkovsky’s moving crane shots were particularly dramatic, because they could have the somewhat unnerving effect of transporting the viewer into entirely new “worlds” (contexts), all in the same shot.  As a consequence the viewer is sometimes cast into multiple subjective focalizations within the course of that single continuous shot.  All of this gave Tarkovsky’s visual presentation a narrative feeling that was unique to his style.

In addition, Tarkovsky felt that color films were too pronouncedly (and therefore artificially) colorful and thus made the viewer too conscious of color.  This was perhaps true in the 1960s, when the contrast range of color motion-picture film was quite limited compared to black-and-white film.  In any case, Tarkovsky felt that our normal consciousness is less explicitly aware of color and therefore more like monochrome film [6].

Overall, Tarkovsky’s unique focus on the visual reflected his view (and mine, too) that film is a unique medium of expression that goes far beyond what can be presented by the textual [6]. He often presented stark images that might be considered to be visual metaphors, but which evoked ambiguous feelings that went beyond straightforward articulation. Such images included riderless horses, heavy rainstorms in natural settings, and high aerial shots over waterways.  Tarkovsky had contempt for films that could be summarized in words and were merely illustrated presentations of a written script.  For Tarkovsky, the film script is merely a tool that is used during the production of something that is beyond textual description.  I believe this is the case for the film Andrei Rublev, which should be borne in mind in connection with my discussion here.

The story of Andrei Rublev concerns a renowned 15th century painter, Andrei Rublev (c. 1360 - 1430), who is still celebrated for his painted icons associated with the prevailing Russian Orthodox Christian church. Not much is known about Rublev’s life, so most of the scenes concerning Rublev are presumably fabricated. However, one feels that the overall milieu depicted in the film is probably authentic. 

Now since the film depicts scenes from the life of an artist, one is likely to assume that the major theme must concern artistic expression. But in fact there are larger issues involved, and it is difficult to pin down just what are the specific themes considered (as Tarkovsky presumably intended).  For one thing, the painting of Orthodox icons is different from typical Western painting.  Russian Orthodox Christian iconography was not supposed to be a vehicle for reflecting creative genius [7].  Instead its top practitioners were supposed to be skilled craftsmen who restricted themselves within the boundaries of a well-defined discipline. Icons were supposed to be devoid of passionate individuality and to reflect the timeless truths, as embodied by angels and holy figures, that underlie the holy scriptures of the faith.  We should view Rublev in this light. 

Those various issues that Tarkovsky took up in Andrei Rublev are presented in seven thematically and historically disconnected segments that range over a 23-year period, preceded by an ambiguous prologue and capped at the end with an epilogue.  The prologue and seven narrative sequences are all in black-and-white, while the epilogue (which shows details of Ruble’s painted icons) is in color.  Although the film is ostensibly about Andrei Rublev, in much of what is shown he is only an observer in the background. 

In the following I will discuss various aspects of those narrative elements, with respect to which I will offer my own reactions; but given the film’s somewhat ambiguous presentation, you may have quite different responses. If you would like a more detailed presentation of the specific events in the film, you may like to consult the following references: [8,9].

Prologue  (7 minutes)
The opening sequence shows a man named Yelfim fleeing an angry, destructive crowd.  He just manages to fly away in a make-shift hot-air balloon and soars above the unruly circumstances on the ground.  Although he is giddy with his airborne experience, it all comes down to a disastrous finish.  We are left to reflect on the frailty of human ambition.

The Jester (1400) (12 minutes)
Three monks – Kirill, Daniil Chorny, and Andrei Rublev – are shown departing from their monastery on foot and headed for Moscow, which they haven’t seen for some ten years or so.  These three monks will be shown through much of the film, and they have different characters.
  • Kirill is intellectual and judgmental, but not particularly skilled or intuitive.
  • Daniil is a skilled professional, but self-centered and ambitious.
  • Andre Rublev is skilled and is a resolute perceiver; he struggles to see the larger meaning of things.
They run into a heavy rainstorm and seek shelter at an inn, where an impudent jester is entertaining the people there with a performance mocking the Boyar aristocracy.  Kirill makes the contemptuous remark to his mates that “God sent priests, but the Devil sent jesters.”

There is a spectacular 70-second 360-degree pan in the inn, starting with the three monks in-frame, and ending with just two of them in-frame – Kirill is missing.  We will later learn that he has gone outside to denounce the jester to the authorities, which will lead to the jester’s arrest, torture, and a 10-year prison sentence.

The theme of this segment seems to concern the authorities’ (Boyars, governors, the Church) dismissal of freedom of expression.

Theophanes the Greek (1405-06) (34 minutes)
Kirill comes upon Theophanes the Greek, a famous Orthodox icon painter (a real historical figure) and discusses art with him.  In their discussion Kirill dismisses his colleague, Andrei Rublev, as lacking creative genius.  There is a 3-minute shot in this sequence, mostly tracking Kirill in closeup, of him contemplating the Holy Scriptures (in voiceover).  Theophanes is impressed with Kirill’s intellect and says he will invite him to be his apprentice, but he later invites Rublev instead.  In jealous frustration that he was passed over, Kirill angrily resigns from the Andronnikov Monastery, telling them all that they are hypocrites. His bad-tempered departure from the monastery is shown in another 3-minute tracking shot that begins in medium closeup and gradually pulls back, distancing the viewer from both Kirill and the monks and emphasizing their separation.

Later when Theophanes and Rublev are together, they discuss the meaning of art, and this is shown in a 160-second shot that tracks the moving discussants in closeup. In their conversation, Theophanes, who is not a monk, dismisses man as hopelessly sinful and that he, himself, doesn't work for man, but only for art’s sake. On the other side, Rublev expresses more faith in man's worth.

This section’s theme seems to concern whether religion and art are devoted to God’s perfection or man’s imperfection.

The Holiday (Spring 1408) (17 minutes)

Rublev and his assistant Foma are journeying to do painting at the Cathedral of the Assumption when they come upon a pagan festival in the forest.  The pagan practitioners are mostly naked and free-love adherents, and Rublev cannot resist spying on them.  He is soon captured by the pagans and has a 2-minute interaction/conversation with a naked girl who, in the face of Rublev’s stern disapproval, asserts the innocence of human love and passion.

Rublev gets away, and when he and his group later see the pagan celebrants being attacked by indignant vigilantes, they do not come to their aid.

This theme shows how worldly human love was condemned by society and the monks.

The Last Judgement (Summer 1408) (27 minutes)
Rublev and Daniil are commissioned to paint The Last Judgement for the Grand Prince of Vladimir, but they cannot agree on the design.  Rublev doesn’t want to portray the Devil and associated scenes that he feels are disgusting. 


Meanwhile some stone carvers and decorators tell the prince they have completed their contracted work, even though the prince wants some changes made.  The stone carvers and decorators leave anyway in order to take up some work for the Grand Prince’s brother (a lesser prince) in Zvenigorod.  On the road to their destination, these craftsmen are attacked by the jealous Grand Prince’s militia and they all have their eyes brutally gouged out so that they cannot make anything for the brother that would compete for the Grand Prince’s existing building.

Rublev is horrified when he hears about this.  In the midst of his anguish, a simple-minded peasant girl arrives on the scene, and she takes on the metaphorical role of the Holy Fool for the rest of the film.  She is uncovered, which was not considered appropriate for women in that setting.  While she walks around and gawks at  Rublev’s work environment, in a 160-second shot, there is a background recitation from the Christian Bible, of Paul the Apostle's epistle, 1 Corinthians, 11, verses 1-15:

  1. Imitate me just as I also imitate Christ. 
  2. Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the ordinances as I have delivered them to you.
  3. But I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.
  4. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered dishonoreth his head.
  5. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonereth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.
  6. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
  7. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. 
  8. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.
  9. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
  10. For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
  11. Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.
  12. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.
  13. Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? 
  14. Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? 
  15. But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.
I quote this passage to remind the reader that the Christian scriptures contain behavioral adjurations concerning women that are both primitive and prejudiced; but the mainstream elements of that  religion have discarded such backward thinking towards women.  Hopefully mainstreams of other world religions will follow a similar path to more enlightened attitudes and behavioral norms towards women.

At the end of this segment, Rublev sees the light and tells Daniil that the girl (the Holy Fool) is not a sinner even though she does not wear a scarf.

The Raid (Autumn 2008) (33 minutes)
This segment covers a Tatar raid on the Grand Prince in Vladimir that is sponsored by his jealous brother from Zvenigorod.  It features a brilliant succession of long-take action shots covering the bloody combat from all angles (and heights).  This is one of the most compelling segments in the film.  The Tatars are ruthless and conduct a massive slaughter.  At one point a Tatar warrior abducts the Holy Fool with the intent of raping her, but Rublev kills him with an axe.  In the end it seems that only Rublev and the Holy Fool survive.

Afterwards Rublev has an imagined conversation with the supposedly deceased Theophanes.  On this occasion they take reversed sides from their previous conversation concerning the inherent worth of humanity.  Rublev also tells him that he has sinned by killing a man and that he will withdraw from society and never paint again. He has lost faith in himself and in mankind. It seems that this conversation actually reflects a mental battle going on inside Rublev’s head, with Theophanes now taking up the optimistic side and asserting that, despite the meaningless Tatar slaughter, mankind is still worthy of one’s lifelong efforts.

So the theme of this segment is that one should follow the holy truths despite disasters.

The Charity (Winter 1412) (17 minutes)
We are back at the Andronnikov Monastery, and an extended famine has devastated Russia. Andre is there, along with the Holy Fool, and he has been observing a vow of silence since he killed the Tatar four years earlier. Then the long-absent Kirill arrives in a starved and destitute  state. He begs for readmission to the monastery, and is only allowed to stay if he is willing to carry out the harsh penance of copying all the holy scriptures fifteen times.

Some Tatars pass through, and despite Rublev’s remonstrations, seduce the Holy Fool into becoming one of their wives and running off with them.  Kirill finally happens onto Rublev and assures the still-silent artist that the Holy Fool’s innocence will protect her from being harmed by the Tatars.

The more selfishly analyticall Kirill has now come to a more positive attitude than the originally more feeling-oriented Rublev. 

The Bell (Spring 1423 - Spring 1424) (47 minutes)
Now years later, it is the plague that is devastating Russia. The Grand Prince wants to have a huge bell cast for his cathedral, but it seems that the plague has wiped out most of the bell-casting masters, and one of the only surviving bell-casters is a teenage boy, Boriska. So the boy is contracted to supervise the large construction project of building the furnace that will be used to cast the enormous bell. In the background, the now-elderly Rublev is a silent observer to the proceedings. This segment, like the earlier Raid segment, is satisfying because it has its own more easily followed narrative direction.  Again there are numerous tracking and craning shots that cover the multifarious construction activities.  These include an amazing sequence of 80- to 100-second shots that move from Boriska closeups over to more distant images of bell-making activity and then back to Boriska in a new place.

Given the various disasters already viewed, it seems likely that Boriska’s ambitious efforts will end in failure.  But in the end the huge bell is successfully produced and tolled.  Kirill, the Holy Fool, and even the jester show up in this sequence.

I got the feeling that the bell casting effort was a metaphor for how Tarkovsky conceived film production and that he identified himself with Boriska. Boriska is so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the effort that it seems to have gone beyond his control. When the construction efforts turn out to have been successful, he cannot believe it and confesses that he had oversold his own abilities. In the end Rublev approaches the exhausted and overwhelmed Boriska and finally breaks his 15-year silence.  He tells the boy to believe in the value of his own efforts.  He should continue to cast bells, and Rublev vows to return to painting icons.

Epilogue (9 minutes)
The last segment shows a sequence of existing Rublev icon images in color, with a bombastic choral background.  Most of the images are details of icons, rather than full views, and the camera roves over these images at considerable (perhaps excessive) length.

You may draw your own conclusions as to the ultimate themes of Andrei Rublev. But I would say that it is not so much about artistic creation but more about how man can be guided by God’s message. The Orthodox icon is supposed to provide a signpost of God and make one aware of God’s presence on earth. It is that final sequence in the film, concerning the Bell, that signals how, even in the face of all the perfidy around us, our supposedly menial efforts can still make a contribution that is larger and more meaningful than we might suppose.
★★★½ 

Notes:
  1. I use the word advisedly, since Andrei Rublev was an icon creator.
  2. Hamish Ford, “Andrei Rublev”, Senses of Cinema, December 2009.
  3. Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andre Rublev, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (1 November 2005).
  4. Murtaza Ali Khan, Andrei Rublev: Russian Auteur Andrei Tarkovsky’s Treatise on Creative Freedom and Spirituality”, A Potpouuri of Vestiges, (22 May 2012).
  5. There are allegations that Tarkovsky was murdered by the Russian KGB by having him contaminated with cancer-causing elements, see  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrei_Tarkovsky.  This kind of assassination of cultural figures to suppress free expression is not without precedents for the KGB; consider Georgi Markov: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgi_Markov. 
  6. Maria Chugunova,"On Cinema – Interview with Tarkovsky", To the Screen,  (December 1966).
  7. Cindy Egly, “Eastern Orthodox Christians and Iconography”, Antiochan   Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (accessed 7 September 2015).
  8. Patrick Louis Cooney, “Andrei Rublev (1969)”, Historical Movies (Historical Films) in Chronological Order”,  (accessed 7 September 2015).
  9. “Andrei Rublev (film)”, Wikipedia, (28 August 2015).

Amir Naderi

Films of Amir Naderi:

“The Runner” - Amir Naderi (1984)


Amir Naderi’s filmmaking career, like those of a number of his still-active Iranian contemporaries [1], has stretched over a long period, encompassing pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary Iran and probably requiring significant adaptations to various imposed constraints on the film industry.  I would assume that a particularly difficult time for filmmakers would have been the first decade after the revolution, but that was when Naderi made his most famous and acclaimed film, The Runner (Davandeh, 1984).  This film shows the world of a young orphan boy named Amiro who has to scrounge for his living along the waterfront of an Iranian seaport (presumably Abadan).  But instead of focusing on the mundane specifics of the boy’s daily life, the film concentrates on the boy’s inner, emotional ups and downs.  And this is what gives the film near-universal appeal.

There are several aspects of the film that make it unique.  For one thing – and this is a weakness, – there is not much of an overall narrative to the film, but it still manages to hold your interest.  Instead of a clear-cut plotline, the film consists of a sequence of disparate episodes strung together almost randomly (although there is a general thematic progression that I will describe below).  In some sense the film is almost more like an essay than a typical story.  One might say, however, that this essay quality is the film’s basic virtue: The Runner, analogously to a musical tone poem, is really a visual (cinematic) poem that conveys a mood (and a stance), rather than a story.

Italian neorealist cinema is said to be an influence on Naderi, and The Runner has been mentioned as an example of that genre [2].  But this should not lead one to believe that this film is a fly-on-the-wall documentary of recorded reality.  The scenes in this film have been carefully staged by Naderi and his cinematographer, Firooz Malekzadeh, with superb moving-camera and panning shots, often with long-lens and short depth-of-field imagery, kept gracefully in frame.  Similarly, the dynamic editing of the action scenes is very well done and must have required significant planning.  Another key production feature of the film is the ambient sound, which usefully adds to the contextual atmosphere and gives a sense of presence to what is being shown.  All of this cinematic choreography puts the viewer into the flow of Amiro’s life – so effectively, in fact, that the viewer can basically understand the entire film without reference to the dialogue or subtitles. 

Further amplifying the affective scenery are several emphatic visual metaphors that are repetitively used throughout. 
  • Airplanes and ships – these may suggest liberation and new horizons.
  • Ice and heat – the ice evokes feelings of desperately desired relief from sweltering heat.
  • Running – it evokes the pure joie de vivre of being an autonomous living being.

However, these metaphors are visual for a reason, and they have a suggestive power beyond any textual articulation.

As I mentioned, the story of The Runner is more like a meditation involving impressionistic imagery and has almost the character of an imagined account or a romanticized reminiscence [3].  Nevertheless the film does progress through a few stages.

1.  Scavenging and Collecting Bottles
The opening shots show a boy of bout 11 or 12 years of age, Amiro (played with passion by Majid Niroumand), excitedly shouting at a plane that he sees taking off.  He seems to be celebrating the plane’s ability to fly to  new, exciting worlds. Then the scene shifts to a vast garbage dump, where Amiro, along with other impoverished people, scrounges for salvageable refuse.  Here it’s every man for himself, and people are shown fighting over the meager items that they pick up.  This is the only scene in the film, by the way, showing women (fully covered, of course, and with their faces not visible).

Afterwards, Amiro’s best friend convinces him that it is more profitable for Amiro to join him and other boys in collecting discarded bottles from the sea.  The boys get paid a small pittance by turning the bottles over to junk dealers.  Amiro joins them, but again it’s highly competitive, and he gets bullied out of some of his recovered loot by bigger boys.  After some time, though, Amiro gains acceptance from the existing group of bottle scroungers, and they even invite him to go bicycling with them.

The viewer is eventually shown Amiro’s home life – he lives alone on an beached and abandoned ship and has to look after himself.  He is evidently an orphan.  One of Amiro’s passions apparently is airplanes, and he spends all of his spare money buying magazines that have airplane pictures from a kiosk on the waterfront. 

One day while continuing his work collecting bottles out in the sea, there is a shark warning.  With this scary event Amiro realizes that his other passion, running, would be ruined if a shark were to attack his legs.  So he starts looking for another way of making money.

2.  Ice
Amiro is later shown having found his new occupation: selling ice water for one rial per drink at a plaza along the waterfront.  But, of course, there is still time left over for his passion to engage in footraces with his old friends.  One of their pastimes is to chase freight trains, and they do it exhaustively.  There is no sense of fair play in these events, by the way, as all the competing boys try to push and trip each other as they race along the tracks. 

There are other, more serious, races, too.  On one occasion Amiro spends a long time running after a delinquent customer on a bicycle who failed to pay for his drink.  After a marathon-like run, Amiro catches up with him and collects his rial.  On another occasion, after buying a needed ice block for his work, he is chased by a bigger boy who had temporarily stolen his ice block.  Here again his fleetness afoot wins the day.

3.  Shining Shoes
Later Amiro has found a new and better way of making money: shining the shoes of café customers who frequent the waterfront plaza.  Here he has to avoid being bullied by the plaza café waiters, and he winds up having another altercation with a customer that leads to another marathon race for Amiro. 

He does make enough money to buy more airplane magazines, but now it finally dawns on him that he is illiterate and should learn how to read.  He registers for a literacy class, and with the same determination that has characterized his other activities, he resolutely sets out to learn the Farsi alphabet and become literate.

4.  Coda – the Ultimate Race
The film’s final seven minutes show, in elaborate cinematic detail, another brutally competitive race involving Amiro and his friends.  This one is held near the shoreline petroleum waste fires, and the boys are racing to see who can be the first to reach an ice block that has been set at the finish line.  This sequence, featuring dreamlike slow-motion footage, shows the boys furiously racing in the oppressive heat to reach that metaphorical treasure at the end.  Amiro, who had finished second in the previous train-chasing race, finally emerges triumphant in this one.  At the end, all the boys exult in their exhaustive, but somehow mutually celebratory, effort.
Throughout The Runner the viewer has seen Amiro’s materialistically meager and limited existence portrayed as relentless struggle on the part of a boy who relishes what he can do – run fast.  For Amiro, life itself is represented in the sheer joy of running.  He loves all of it: the effort, the competition, even the combat.  For him, it is the closest he can come to his dream: flying.  Amiro never gives up, and the viewer has confidence that Amiro will ultimately learn to read, too. That will give him more chances to run and fly.
★★★½ 

Notes:
  1. For example: Abbas Kiarostami, Masoud Kimiai, Dariush Mehrjui, and  Ali Rafie.
  2. See: Jugu Abraham, “32. Iranian Director Amir Naderi's 'Davandeh' (The Runner) (1985): a Gem of Neo-realist Cinema”, Movies That Make You Think, (12 March 2007).
  3. The idea of a concocted set of reminiscences is supported by the fact that Amiro’s hair seems to vary in length over various portions of the film.

Arthur Penn

Films of Arthur Penn: