"The Hidden Half" - Tahmineh Milani (2001)

Tahmineh Milani is a prominent woman filmmaker and feminist in a place where it is difficult for a woman to be either of these things – Iran.  Probably her most impressive film so far is the insightful, The Hidden Half’ (Nimeh-ye Penhan, 2001), underlying the narrative of which are the provocative themes of politics and womanhood inside Iran.  Made during the relatively progressive period of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005), the film managed to get approval from the restrictive Iranian censorship authority, the Ministry of Culture, and was released inside the country.  However, shortly after its release and an interview with her was published in an Iranian newspaper, Milani was arrested for "supporting factions waging war against God”, a crime that carries the death penalty [1]. 

A  petition was quickly organized supporting Milani that was signed by hundreds of people from the international filmmaking community, and she was soon released on bail.  Although she has since been able to resume her filmmaking career, these events illustrate just how precarious is the condition of artistic expression inside Iran.  Nevertheless Ms. Milani has continued to speak her mind on socially sensitive issues that she believes in [2].

Much of what transpires in The Hidden Half takes place during the Iranian revolutionary period (1979-83), when the entire society was in tumult.   And in this film the focus is on women who were enthusiastically taking the opportunity to engage in political activities during these disruptive times.  You can well imagine that a film along these lines would come under close scrutiny of the Iranian censoring authorities.  However, Milani’s film (she both directed the film and wrote the screenplay) does not really adopt a controversial socio-political position.  Instead it primarily concerns a higher-level issue concerning how we all make judgements about people and social activities in our lives [3].  It is the presentation of this more philosophical concern that makes the film interesting to me, although some viewers only interested in melodrama may largely overlook it.  So in the discussion below, I will highlight points in the narrative that touch on the complexity of human judgement.

The film does suffer from being overly talky.  Many of the key events in the narrative are only described in spoken dialogue, and this misses out on some cinematic opportunities.  Nevertheless, we must make some allowances for the likely difficult production circumstances that can prevail in Iran when one wants to film women involved in political activities.

The story of The Hidden Half is relatively complex and feature events that are covered in an extensive flashback narrative, and even in a flashback within that flashback.  It transpires over roughly six segments.  To help trace the thread of judgement, I will label those points in the story that involve the topic of how we judge others with the symbol ‘J’.

1.  Fereshte’s Journal  
The film opens in “the present” (2001) and introduces a married couple: Khosro Samimi (played by Atila Pesiani) and his wife Fereshte (played by Niki Karimi, who memorably starred in two feminist-oriented films directed by Dariush MehrjuiSara (1992) and Pari (1995)). Khosro is a justice officer from the Presidential Office, and he has been summoned to go to the southern city of Shiraz to investigate and interview a woman political prisoner who has been condemned to death and is appealing her sentence. 

When Fereshte learns of this assignment, she becomes disturbed and asks her husband what political group the prisoner belongs to.  Khosro says, “what’s the difference?”, and Fereshte thoughtfully responds with, “you’re right”.   But she warns her husband, who is essentially a judge, not to be too judgmental – that is, not to make too-quick judgments before all circumstances are considered (J1).  This introduces the key theme concerning judgment in this film.  The point made is that one should always keep an open mind and see things from the widest possible perspective.  An overly rule-based mind may jump to conclusions too quickly.

When Khosro is about to leave, Fereshte is startled to meet Khosro’s travelling companion from the government office, Mr. Rastegar.  It seems that Fereshte has a past unpleasant history with this man.  Rastegar beseeches her not to judge him based on things that happened twenty years ago (J2).  People can change over time, he tells her.

Khosro and Rastegar depart, and when they arrive in Shiraz, Khosro checks into his hotel room and begins unpacking his suitcase.  He is surprised to discover among his things a journal that Fereshte has placed there about herself that she invites him to read.  In her opening message, she tells him that although she has been a dutiful wife and mother over the seventeen years of their marriage, he doesn’t really know her well as a person.  This, we are given to believe, is the fate of most married women, who are often seen by their husbands only as role-players and not as equal companions (J3). This journal is intended to introduce him to her hitherto “hidden half”.

So Khosro begins reading the journal, which tells him about her life before she met him.  Now the film moves into an extended flashback covering what Khosro reads.

2.  A Young Radical  
The scene shifts to 1978.  Fereshte, from a poor family in a provincial town, manages to pass the then highly selective Iranian college entrance examination and comes to Tehran to study at a university there.  Tehran was then embroiled in revolutionary uproar, as the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was soon to be overthrown by a host of revolutionary forces. Now exposed to a world of new ideas, Fereshte soon joins a Communist organization opposing the government.  Her all-female cell meets every afternoon at a local café to share their experiences and discuss Marxist ideology.  When Fereshte and her fellow Communist cell-member Zohreh (Pooneh Hajimohammadi) occasionally  mention their interest in things like love and beauty, their cell leader, Nasrin, who is a cordial but highly disciplined rule-follower, insists that such topics are outside the scope of their discussions. But Fereshte insists that all people are complexly different and should not be only thought of as identical members of a social class (J4). That is, one’s political decision-making should not be constrained by overly restrictive categorizations of human nature.

Then we see Fereshte and Zohreh carrying out their assigned political activities, which involve handing out and posting on shop walls handbills expressing their Communist messages to the people.  Occasionally, their work is broken up by Islamic Hezbollah ruffians (who locally seem to be led by a woman, Zahra Khanoom) who threaten to beat them up.

One afternoon at one of their cell’s café sessions, Fereshte overhears a man at a neighbouring table of older intellectuals expressing similar views to her own about the basic heterogeneity of people.  This older man, Roozebeh Javid (played by Mohammad Nikbin, who also happens to be Tahmineh Milani’s husband and the film’s co-producer), is suave and articulate, and the teenage Fereshte can’t help from being immediately attracted to him.  Her persistent staring at him causes the two of them to make momentary eye contact.

3.  Fereshte and Javid  
Fereshte wants to see more of Javid and attends a commemorative ceremony for recently deceased actor Parviz Fannizadeh, which she knows Javid is attending.  Since Fannizadeh died on 24 February 1979, the viewer can tell that we are now already in the era of the Islamic Republic, which was installed in early February 1979.  But no matter who is in power – whether monarchists or Islamists – the Communists here are perpetual outsiders and are always suppressed by the government authorities. 

At the ceremony, Javid is introduced to the audience as a famous writer (even as another Sadegh Hedayat!) and magazine editor, and he makes confident, extemporaneous remarks at the lectern that demonstrate his own celebrity status among the educated sector of society.  After his remarks Javid approaches Fereshte for some small talk.  But when he calls her “a little lady”, Fereshte takes offence and leaves the gathering.

Later when Hezbollahi thugs attack the Communist ladies distributing their leaflets on the street, Fereshte flees and fortuitously finds refuge when she comes across Javid’s office.   There she is introduced to Javid’s guest, Ms. Pahlevan, who is an older radical and spent five years in prison.  After a brief conversation, Ms. Pahlevan scolds Fereshte for only studying global Marxist theory and knowing nothing about Iran’s own political history.  Fereshte takes this chastisement to heart and realizes that one’s political judgements must take into consideration local circumstances and not just rely on abstract, context-free theory (J5).

Then at another meeting of her Communist cell, Fereshte again asserts that personal love is an important aspect of life, even for a revolutionary.  But the official response she gets from the Communist higher-ups is that considerations of love must be suspended while one is working for the Party.  Again Fereshte takes issue with such doctrinaire thinking (J6).

On another occasion Fereshte goes to Javid’s’ office  to see if he will publish some of her poetry. Javid condescendingly rejects her poetry, but insists that they get to know each other better.  He invites her to an upscale literary party where Fereshte feels out of place, but Javid shows increasing warmth towards her.  He gives her a ride home, but when they see her home is surrounded by Pasdaran guards ready to arrest her, she takes refuge in her friend Zohreh’s flat.

4.  Coming to Terms 
Javid, becoming more intimately personal all the time, now insists that Fereshte take refuge for awhile in the UK, a trip and sojourn that he will pay for.  After going to her village to retrieve her birth certificate for this purpose, she returns to Javid’s office where she is intercepted by Javid’s assistant, Mr. Mansoori. 

Mansoori informs Fereshte, to her shock, that Javid already has a wife and son.  Mansoori then takes her to meet Javid’s wife, who fears that Javid is planning to run away with Fereshte to the UK.  It turns out that Fereshte is actually a dead lookalike for Javid’s youthful flame, Mahmonir, back in 1953.  Mahmonir was a member of the Communist Tudeh party back in that period when the democratically elected Iranian President, Mohammad Mosadegh, was overthrown, and she was apparently killed during one of the disturbances that took place at that time.   

Fereshte is horrified to hear about this and realizes that she really represents merely another incarnation of Javid’s past beloved and that she is not loved for herself. She vows to fully disconnect from Javid.  When Javid comes to her to give her another ride in his car, he this time proposes marriage to her.  But Fereshte gets out of the car and runs away. 

5.  Hiding Away    
Fereshte’s world now continues to diminish.  The Islamist authorities launch the Iranian Cultural Revolution and close all the universities for four years in order to supposedly cleanse them of their secular pollution.  The authorities also break up the girls’ Communist activities.  Their cell leader, Nasrin, is arrested and executed.  And given that their activities were organized as a clandestine cell system [4], the elimination of their cell leader meant that the rest of the girls in the cell were cut off from any further contact with the larger Communist organization.  Fereshte’s cell-mates Farkhondeh and Maryam are given long prison sentences, while Zohreh manages to escape to Germany.  Fereshte, herself, manages to hide away by getting a full-time, live-in job taking care of an old lady.

Four years later Fereshte meets the old lady’s son, Khosro, who had been away studying overseas.  He helps her get back into a university when they are finally reopened, and this means overcoming the nasty interference of a Hezbollah student, Rastegar, who is familiar with her Communist past.  Eventually Khosro proposes marriage to Fereshte.

6.  Back to the Present  
The closing segment of Fereshte’s journal concerns what happened when she attended the funeral of her long-imprisoned friend Farkhondeh’s father just two days earlier.  Javid, whom Fereshte hadn’t seen for twenty years, was unexpectedly there, and they guardedly exchanged polite pleasantries.  Javid tells her that one of his only regrets is that she only listened to his wife’s claims and never gave him a chance to tell her his side of the story.  Fereshte concedes the point to herself and knows that she will always wonder what his side of the story may have been (J7). 

She closes her journal by saying that she has revealed so much about herself, her hidden half, to her husband, knowing that the information will remove her image for him of innocence and purity but hoping that it will help them love each other more as equal partners.  In order for him to love her fully, she feels, he must know all about her.  And so she finally urges him not to pre-judge the woman prisoner in Shiraz until he has fully heard that woman’s own side of the story (J8).

The final scene of the film shows Khosro at the prison listening to the woman prisoner’s story.


Although The Hidden Half shows women activists trying to exercise their right of free speech to oppose the government, the film doesn’t present explicit criticisms of the existing government.  Nevertheless, it does offer an implicit critique of the way things are run in Iranian society.  Iranian society has long been governed by people relying on a highly restrictive set of narrow-minded rules covering all aspects of human behavior.  To deal with this social coercion, Iranians have organized their lives into two  distinct social spheres – the public sphere and the private sphere.  Of course, we could say that almost all societies make this distinction, but in Iran this separation is severe [5].  In the public sphere, the coercively enforced rules and social norms place harsh restrictions on human autonomy.  But in the private sphere, which Iranians go to some lengths to maintain private, social interaction is often much more open and liberal.  The public morality guardians are not supposed to cross the domestic doorsill and intrude on more personal interactions.  This protection of the inner social life is, of course, particularly important for women, who have much more opportunity to be themselves behind closed doors.

But this situation is a difficult compromise, and Tamineh Milani sees problems arising from it, becaise it leads Iranians to often mask themselves for their own survival [2].  The separation between the public and private spheres can never be absolute, and so people must always be somewhat on guard.  This can be an impedance to authentic human interaction.  In this regard, she is implicitly asserting that we need more openness. In particular, we should ensure that our judgments of others, as suggested by the encounters listed J1...J8 above, have the widest scope and tolerance as possible for the variety of influences on human behaviour. 

We are all thinking, feeling, and loving human beings, and many of us are likely to have our own “hidden halves”, too.  We need to withhold critical judgement until we have empathically looked at all aspects of others that we encounter.  And even if we can never see that hidden half of another person, we can still accommodate the possibility that it is there, anyway.  This is a message that I doubt goes down well with the oppressive Iranian authorities, but it is something that applies to all of us, everywhere. In that sense The Hidden Half is a thoughtful piece of universal human wisdom, and Tamineh Milani and her collaborators are to be commended for it.
★★½
   
Notes:
  1. Steve Ross, “Thorn in Their Side”, The Guardian, (2 November 2001). 
  2. Richard Phillips, “Iranian director Tahmineh Milani speaks with WSWS”, World Socialist Web Site, International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), (29 September 2006).   
  3. Sandrellita, “Iranian film The Hidden Half, directed by Tahmineh Milani”, Sandrellita on Cinema and Culture, (16 March 2011).   
  4. “Clandestine cell system”, Wikipedia, (27 March 2018).    
  5. Hooman Majd, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, Anchor, (2009).

Tamineh Milani

Films of Tamineh Milani:

Dmitriy Vasilev

Films of  Dmitriy Vasilev:

Paul Wegener

Films of  Paul Wegener:
  • The Golem - Paul Wegener and Carl Boese (1920)

Robert Wiene

Films of Robert Wiene:

Willliam Wyler

Films of Willliam Wyler:

"Safety Last!" - Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor (1923)

Harold Lloyd has always been considered, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, to be one of the three iconic giants of the silent screen era.  Interestingly, all three of them invariably produced, not dramas or exciting adventures but, instead, exhilarating comedies depicting a lovable underdog in pursuit of the American Dream.  Today, though, Lloyd is the least remembered of this awesome threesome.  In fact, although Lloyd was a prolific and highly successful performer during much of the silent period, he is known today primarily for just one masterwork, Safety Last! (1923).   But that one is a gem [1].

Note that Lloyd, unlike Chaplin and Keaton, was not listed as a film director (Safety Last! was directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor); but his unique screen persona placed a singular stamp on all his films and earned him the right to be called an auteur.  In this connection it is worth comparing the screen personae of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.  All three were underdogs chasing the American Dream, but they represented three slightly different stances with respect to epic uphill struggles to succeed:
  • Charlie Chaplin was always “The Tramp”, an insouciant guttersnipe who, despite his impoverished circumstances, was often naughtily cheeky towards those lording it over him.  The dramatic contexts of his films had an emphasis on The Tramp’s low social status and his struggles against seemingly socially superior bullies.
     
  • Buster Keaton was usually a dogged and unflappably determined innocent who tenaciously struggled against seemingly overwhelming obstacles.  He was upright, straightforward, and unsophisticated – almost like a bumpkin – and less crafty than the Chaplin character. The narrative context of his struggles was often more physical than social, although this physical visual context sometimes bordered on the surreal.
             
  • Harold Lloyd, in contrast to the other two, was more hopeful, in a naive Boy Scout Tenderfoot sort of way.  He was more conventional and sociable than the other two, but we still see him on the bottom rung of whatever ladder he is climbing. He, like the Keaton character, was innocent, but he foolishly fancied himself to be an All-American, Horatio-Alger-style hero.  His struggles took place in a mixed context featuring both physical and social obstacles.
All three of them were amazingly physically dexterous in their purely visual presentation of comic scenes, but I find it hard to believe that anyone could match Lloyd’s acrobatic movements, which had the artistry of a free-form ballet dancer.

In Safety Last!, the bespectacled Lloyd plays an earnest young man from a small town who comes to the big city hoping to make his fortune.  The first three-quarters of the film comically depict the young man’s various misadventures trying to succeed.  But what elevates Safety Last! into the pantheon of movie classics is the spectacular building-scaling scene that transpires over the film’s final twenty minutes.  Nevertheless, there is an overall narrative that leads up to that illustrious sequence, and it does have its own merits.

1.  Working in the Department Store
Act 1 establishes the situation and goal of the main character.  In the opening sequence we see “The Boy” (played by Harold Lloyd) at the train station of his small town, Great Bend, and about to depart for the big city.  He confidently promises to his mother and his fiancé (Mildred Davis), aka “The Girl”, who are there to see him off, that he will send for his sweetheart and marry her just as soon as he has made some big money.  Then the scene shifts to the big city several months later where The Boy is shown sharing a flat with his friend Bill (Bill Strother), aka “The Pal”, and living in impecunious circumstances.  The Boy hasn’t gotten anywhere with his plans to make it big. The Boy works as a lowly salesman in a large department store, and Bill works as a skyscraper construction worker, but the two of them don’t even have enough money to keep up with their $7 dollars-per-week rent.  Nevertheless, The Boy writes daily letters to The Girl falsely assuring her that he is making it big.

Then there are various humorous scenes showing The Boy’s harried salesperson work conditions in the De Vore Department Store and his struggles to avoid getting fired by his pompous and domineering floor manager, Mr. Stubbs (Westcott Clarke).

2.  A New Problem
In Act 2 a couple of important events occur that will impact what happens later.  The Boy runs into an old friend on the street who is now working as a cop.  Attempting to show off his insider status with the police in front of Bill, The Boy goads Bill into giving his old hometown friend an aggressive shove.  But the prank is botched when Bill gives the shove to  the wrong cop (Noah Young), aka “The Law”, who becomes incensed and tries to collar Bill. Bill manages to get away for the moment by skilfully scaling a building wall which the angry cop cannot climb.  The cop vows to arrest Bill the next time he sees him.

Meanwhile The Girl back in Great Bend is so impressed with The Boy’s boastful claims of success that she decides to go the big city and surprise him with a visit.

3.  Showing off to The Girl
When The Girl arrives at the department store and surprises The Boy, she assumes he is the store’s manager, and he frantically struggles to keep up with that pretense.   There follows a sequence of carefully choreographed antics featuring The Boy’s efforts to just barely maintain the facade that he is indeed the general manager of the store.  This is all the more difficult due to the stern overseeing eye of the floorwalker Mr. Stubbs.  But The Boy manages to keep things going, for the moment, even sneaking in a fake reprimand of Stubbs by momentarily masquerading as the real general manager.

Finally, The Boy learns that the real general manager is willing to pay $1,000 to anyone in their organization who can mount an event that will attract a mass of customers to the department store.  The Boy, having seen his pal Bill climb up the side of a building, hits on the idea of staging a publicized daredevil event of Bill climbing up the outside of 12-story De Vore Department Store building.  If he can pull it off, The Boy will have secured his fortune.  The event is duly advertised in the daily newspaper, and a large crowd of onlookers assembles around the store.  But included among those assembled is The Law, the disgruntled cop who suspects the unnamed building climber is Bill, whom he has vowed to arrest.  Everything is set for the dramatic closing act.

4.  The Climb
Although the experienced building scaler Bill is supposed to make the climb, the threatening presence of The Law forces The Boy to commence the ascent himself.  Their hastily formulated plan is for The Boy to somehow climb up one floor of the building, at which point Bill, who will be waiting for him on the second floor, will surreptitiously assume The Boy’s identity by donning The Boy’s straw hat and horned-rim glasses and then continue the ascent from there.  But the materialization of this plan is continuously delayed, floor by floor, as the suspicious cop keeps hounding Bill and preventing him from making the clothing swap.

So The Boy keeps going, barely managing to hold onto the bricks protruding from the building wall.  This is the breathtaking sequence that everyone remembers.  To make things worse, all sorts of unexpected hindrances bedevil him all along the way up. At one point some food droppings out of an upper-level window land on his shoulders and attract a flock of aggressive pigeons.  On another occasion he becomes entangled with a tennis net that has fallen out of a window.  And when he is lying for a moment on a ledge, a mouse crawls up his pant leg and makes him shiver uncontrollably.

The continual presentation of all these perilous moments of imminent existential annihilation in Safety Last! have a cumulative effect on the viewer, perhaps especially for those like me who have an innate fear of heights.  The relentless exposure not just to the possibilities of death but to the opportunities of self-obliteration when looking over a precipice provide a nonverbal and intuitive feeling for the preciousness of each moment of life, itself.  This is not something that occurs to the rational mind, but is more like a Zen Buddhist moment of satori [2].  Perhaps we are all unknowingly like “The Boy” in this film and almost blithely unaware of how near the advent of non-existence is to us at every moment.  We must fully and positively engage in this world for every moment we are able to live in it.  So these alarming moments in a supposedly comic film may give to Safety Last! almost a spiritual dimension for some viewers.

Of course the most memorable moment, and perhaps the most famous image of the silent era, comes when The Boy desperately hangs by his hands from the minute-hand of a building clock.  All of these occurrences are brilliantly filmed, and one can’t help wondering how they managed to do it in the age before special effects.

In fact reading about some of the production details draws even more amazement [3].  Lloyd performed essentially all the shots without a stunt man, and he was exactly as high up above the street as he appeared on film.  They did have a scaffolding platform for safety two or three floors below him and just out of camera range. But when they one time performed a test of a fall with a dummy, the dummy bounced off the platform and fell to the street below. And to top it off, Lloyd was handicapped by having had the thumb and forefinger of his right hand blown off in an accident a year or so earlier (this handicap is masked in the film by a glove that Lloyd wore).

This whole spectacular climbing sequence is not only the highlight of the film, it was the basis  for making of the film in the first place.  Lloyd had seen Bill Strother, known as “The Human Spider”, climb the outside of a building in Los Angeles as a publicity stunt and immediately proposed making a film with Strother (who was not an actor but who plays the role of Bill, The Pal, in the film).  In fact they shot the last act of the film first, before even having a full story worked out for the preceding acts [3].

It all works.  And it is not only the brilliant performance of Harold Lloyd that makes the film outstanding. The camera work and continuity editing are extraordinarily well done throughout the film, making it all fit together as an almost seamless narrative.  There is even a well-executed backward tracking shot in the film that show Lloyd being followed by the suspicious cop.

In the end The Boy makes it to the top of the building and gets his prize.  The Girl is waiting for him, and they passionately embrace at the close of the film.  Lloyd got his prize at the end in real life, too – he married his co-star, Mildred Davis, in early 1923 after the shooting of Safety Last! was complete.


Notes:
  1. Roger Ebert, “Safety Last”, RogerEbert.com, (3 July 2005).   
  2. Daisetz T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, Princeton University Press, (1959). 
  3. Richard W. Bann, “Safety Last”, National Film Preservation Board, Library of Congress, (n.d.).    

Sam Taylor

Films of Sam Taylor:

Fred C. Newmeyer

Films of Fred C. Newmeyer:

Harold Lloyd

Films of Harold Lloyd:

"Tabu" - F. W. Murnau (1931)

F. W. Murnau, perhaps the greatest German Expressionist filmmaker, shifted to Hollywood in 1927 at the invitation of producer William Fox and closed out his too-brief career there.   Prior to his tragic death in 1931, he made two classics there that stand as monuments to the wondrous visual possibilities of silent films – Sunrise (1927) and Tabu (aka Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, 1931).  Although Sunrise is generally considered to be Murnau’s masterpiece, Tabu has also always been highly regarded [1,2,3], and indeed filmmaker Eric Rohmer is said to have labelled Murnau as cinema's greatest filmmaker and Tabu his greatest film [4,5].

Both of these films are about love that is threatened by dark forces, but the natures of those dark forces are different. In Sunrise” the threatening forces come from within – the dark almost uncontrollable passions of lust and revenge inside the male protagonist (“The Man” in that film).  In Tabu the threatening force is external to the protagonists.  Despite this distinction between the internal and external natures of the threats, both of the threats have a generic quality that makes them understandable to everyone.

The production of Tabu was begun as an artistic collaboration between Murnau and Robert J. Flaherty a pioneer in documentary ethnographic narratives (e.g. Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926)), and the two of them co-wrote the screenplay for their film.  However, as location shooting commenced in Tahiti, artistic and personal differences arose between Flaherty and Murnau, led to Flaherty’s eventual withdrawal from the production.  Nevertheless, when the film is viewed today, it can be seen to bear the aesthetic earmarks of both of these artists, particularly with respect to the opening sequences of Tabu, which were shot by Flaherty. 

To economize on production costs for the film shooting in Tahiti, Murnau used mostly local actors and a local production crew.  This being a silent film, it is told entirely without dialogue, although some diegetically-internal written textual messages appear that convey important information for the storyline.  In addition the music composed by Hugo Riesenfeld is synchronised with the visuals and sometimes features sounds and tones that have diegetic relevance.

The story of Tabu concerns the love between two Polynesian natives in the South Seas some time ago and how their love is interfered with by external social forces.  It is partitioned into two parts, “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost”; but I would say that the narrative roughly comprises four divisions.

1.  Paradise
The film opens with young men on the small Pacific island of Bora Bora joyfully engaged in their native practice of spear-fishing.  One of the men, Matahi, seems to be particularly adept in this activity. They later frolic in the nearby waterfalls associated with a local stream, where they encounter some young women bathing together.  When Matahi breaks up a fight that suddenly arose between two of the girls, he finds himself comforting one of the two combatants, Reri (played by Anne Chevalier), who was getting the worst of it. It soon becomes evident that Matahi and Reri are naturally attracted to each other.

The entire picture here in this first section is that of innocent “noble savages” living joyfully and harmoniously in a pristine natural environment.

2.  A Dark Spectre Comes
The happy revelry of these young people is interrupted by the exciting appearance of a sailing ship that arrives at Bora Bora.  Onboard the ship is a stern old warrior, Hitu, who bears a message from the ruling chief of Fanuma. The message declares that the woman who was their tribal Sacred Virgin has just died, and that this high and honourable position is now to be filled by a resident of Bora Bora, Reri.  But this position comes with a high price – the Sacred Virgin, who is supposed to epitomise and symbolise virtue, dignity, and honour, must be kept eternally away from the possible lustful gazes of men.  In other words, she is to become a prisoner sacrificed to the superstitions surrounding the artificial notions of objective dignity and honour. 

While the locals rejoice in the appointment, Reri weeps.  But at a local festival celebrating the event, Reri has the opportunity to dance, and she and Matahi seize the brief opportunity to dance seductively together.  Afterwards Hitu takes Reri onboard the ship for a lifetime of incarceration.

However, at night Matahi sneaks out to the not-yet-departed ship and secretly absconds with Reri.  The locals then propose a willing substitute for Reri, but Hitu remains implacable.  He will settle for noone other than Reri.

Hitu’s never-changing dour expression of inexorable demand makes him a symbol of annihilation.  He is the Grim Reaper.  This casts the rest of the film as a contest between human love and death itself.

3.  Matahi and Reri Together    
Almost starved, Matahi and Reri manage to get away and make it to another island in French Polynesia, where the attraction of the pearl trade has led to a greater presence of Western civilization.  This offers the young couple the opportunity of possible escape from the restrictions of their superstitious tribal society.  But it also introduces new complications.

The athletic Matahi quickly establishes himself as an expert peal diver.  But his ignorance of how money works leads him to assume an enormous debt at the conclusion of a party he threw for his new island community which featured heaps of expensive champagne.

And when a ship arrives at their new island, it is revealed that, in order to reduce local tensions, the French colonial authorities are seeking the return of Matahi and Reri to Bora Bora.  The two of them just manage to escape capture when Matahi bribes the arresting French constable with a pearl he still has.  Hitu’s grim, implacable image seems always to be lurking around every corner, though.  He tracks them down and surreptitiously leaves a warning message for Reri: she must surrender herself to Hitu within three days, or Matahi will be killed.

Reri hides Hitu’s message from her beloved and now seeks for them to escape to the more cosmopolitan port of Papeete.  But they are blocked from buying tickets by Matahi’s unpaid debt.

4.  Closing In  
The relentless spectre, Hitu, returns to their hut at night and is about to kill the sleeping Matahi when Reri implores him to desist.  She promises to go with Hitu later in order to save Matahi’s life. The Grim Reaper, Hitu, then leaves her with Matahi still asleep.

At this point the narrative switches to parallel action. Matahi, who still doesn’t know about Hitu’s immanent presence, wakes up and now realizing the monetary value of pearls, goes off to a dangerous lagoon guarded by a man-eating shark (and therefor declared "tabu" by the authorities) in order to hunt for a big pearl that can secure their escape.  Meanwhile Reri, ready to depart, writes a tear-stained note to her beloved:
“I have been so happy with you for more than I deserved.

The love you have given me I will keep to the last beat of my heart.

Across the great waters I will come to you in your dreams, when the moon spreads its  path on the sea.

Farewell”
Off in the lagoon, Matahi just manages to secure his desired large pearl before the man-eating shark can get him.  But when he triumphantly returns to their hut, he sees Reri missing and Hitu sailing in a small boat out to sea.  Knowing that Hitu has kidnapped Reri, Matahi desperately swims out after them.  He almost catches up with Hitu, but exhaustion finally overcomes him.  He drowns in the sea as the film ends.


Despite its naturalistic setting and performing troupe, Tabu features both romantic (contributed to by Flaherty) and expressionistic (from Murnau) elements that go beyond the naturalistic.  And, in particular, it is Murnau’s expressionist flavour that resonates with the viewer.  This is the story of innocent and sincere love that is, like Romeo and Juliet, unjustly obstructed by traditional prejudices.  And the modernist influences from French colonialism only becloud things for our protagonists.  Western economic notions of monetary expenses and accumulated debt are only entanglements for these innocents, and French colonial policies of laissez-faire left the two of them unprotected from harsh and backward superstitious practices.

Murnau presents these social menaces as embodied in the almost demonic form of Hitu, who looms over the story like a dark shadow.  I have characterized Murnau’s Sunrise as actually a horror film, due to its expressionistic rendering of destructive passions.  And on the surface, Tabu may at first seem quite different.  Here we have two lovers who are the essence of innocence.  What threatens them is external to them and entirely beyond their comprehension.  But Hitu is not just some individual external menace; he seems to embody the dark side of life itself, i.e. death. For our two innocent lovers there seems to be no escape from his relentless pursuit.  Again we have a horror show, but this time painted by Murnau on a naturalistic canvas.


Notes:
  1. Mordaunt Hall, ”THE SCREEN; Mr. Marnau's Last Picture”, The New York Times,  (19 March 1931).  
  2. Dennis Schwartz, "Brilliantly simple lyrical  film was shot on location in Tahiti", Ozus' World Movie Reviews, (17 March 2013).    
  3. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “Tabu (1931)”, Combustible Celluloid, (n.d.).      
  4. Gordon Thomas, “Bright Sights: Recent DVDs: Tabu; French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris, 1923-1928", Bright Lights Film Journal, (31 July 2013).    
  5. Dennis Grunes, “TABU (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, 1931)”, Dennis Grunes, (14 February 2008). 

Tani Basu

Films of Tani Basu:
  • "Kabuliwala"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 7 – Tani Basu (2015)

Debatma Mandal

Films of Debatma Mandal:
  • "Detective"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 6 – Debatma Mandal (2015)
  • "Punishment"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 8 – Debatma Mandal (2015)

“Punishment”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Punishment” (“Shasti”, 1893) [1] was the basis for the eighth episode of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015).  The series was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, but this particular episode was directed by Debatma Mandal. The story concerns how a domestic crime that erupts in the collective household of two brothers and their wives is addressed .

Although Tagore’s stories were separately written over a wide timespan and were not linked with respect to their content, the series creators’ penchant for linking up the series episodes led to a dramatic connection between this episode and the previous one, “Kabuliwala”.  The young woman Mini turns out to be a key dramatic personage in both “Kabuliwala” and “Punishment”.  But this linkage is only an incidental and distracting artefact, and the two stories told are in other respects quite distinct [2].

One thing notable about this episode is the high quality of the acting, particularly that for the role of the older sister-in-law, Radha. Although the acting over the course of this series is generally very good, it reaches a high point on this occasion. They make the dramatic events in this story come alive with feeling.

The story of “Punishment” begins by depicting the married life of two brothers, Devendra and Upendra, who jointly operate the thriving tea plantation that they inherited from their father.  Devendra is married to Radha, an incessantly crabby nagger who makes life difficult for the people around her.  Younger brother Upendra has recently married Mini, who as a child in the previous episode had been the object of the Kabuliwala’s attentions, and she is now struggling to accommodate and fit in with her bad-tempered sister-in-law.  But Radha persistently complains that Mini is not conforming to the norms of a proper housewife and attending to her  domestic chores.  However, Upendra comforts his sensitive young wife by reminding her that he is madly in love with her and that she will always be the center of his devotion.

Despite the semi-turmoil on the domestic scene, the two brothers seem to be enjoying prosperity with their tea plantation operation.  However, one day a British attorney comes to inform Devendra that the brothers have lost the title to their tea plantation property.  It quickly appears that this is a coercive swindle, and this passage suggests that exploitative elements within the British Raj corruptly manipulated their imposed legal mechanisms to routinely deprive “brown-skinned” natives of their rightful property.  The brothers are powerless to stop the takeover, and they suddenly find themselves in poverty.

Note that this sequence of events depicting British duplicitous exploitation of innocent Indians was not part of Tagore’s original story, which depicted the two brothers just as common day laborers [1]. But I think it is an interesting addition to the narrative, which is, after all, about societal norms, guilt, and punishment. 

Anyway, this situation that the two brothers now face naturally distresses them, particularly older brother Devendra, who had managed their affairs and is now struggling to get them out of debt.  And his disturbed state is only exacerbated by his wife Radha’s perpetually bitchy complaints.  One day when he encounters one of her storms of vituperation, he loses his temper.   He angrily smacks Radha with a vase, and she unexpectedly falls backward out of their second-story window to her death.

Devendra, Upendra, and Mini are all horrified by what has happened and are in a state of shock.  But  Upendra recovers himself enough to tell Mini to stay silent when the authorities arrive and let him do all the talking.  When the police come, Upendra tells them that it was Mini who quarreled with Radha and killed her.  Mini is stunned to hear her husband say this, but she dutifully remains silent.  Upendra reassuringly whispers to her that she should not worry and that he will take care of everything to keep her safe from harm.

After the police arrest Mini, Upendra, in justification of his actions, confides to the still stunned Devendra that he knows that he can always get another wife, but he could never get another brother.  Such are the mores of many traditional societies, according to which blood family ties and fealty always take precedence over those towards a woman who has joined a family by marriage.  For Upendra, Mini is a beautiful toy that can be replaced.

Now in jail, Mini stays loyal to her husband’s command and remains silent when she is questioned.  She recalls her father’s adjurations when she got married that now she must selflessly devote herself to her new husband and his family that she has joined. 

When the court case takes place, Mini is accused of murder and warned that she faces execution if what her husband has said is correct.  Still the stunned woman holds her tongue.  Now finally overcome with guilt at what he is causing, Upendra rises from his seat in the audience and announces that he, himself, committed the murder.  Upon hearing his brother’s sacrificial confession, Devendra then stands up and insists that it was he who committed the murder. 

The judge now has three conflicting accounts as to who committed the murder.  But he is procedurally oriented and has only one person before him who has been formally accused of the crime.  He turns to Mini and asks her to give her account as to what really happened.  Again the stunned girl, still confused about her proper duties, remains silent.  So the judge, taking Mini’s silence as a confession of guilt, condemns the woman to be hanged.  The story ends with Mini silently and tearfully facing the gallows noose.

This is a sad story about justice and punishment.  An accidental death has occurred, and “justice” demands punishment.  Mini has been made to feel guilty and obliged throughout her marriage, and in the end she assumes the guilt for a crime she didn’t commit.  Given the misogonystic social norms under which she lived, the deck was always stacked against her. 

The ending here differs somewhat from Tagore’s story, in which the accused wife, in order to punish her husband with guilt for falsely casting the blame on her, publicly proclaims that she did commit the murder.  At the end of that story, the condemned wife bitterly rejects her husband before she is executed.  I like the ending here in this filmed episode better.  It makes the woman’s sad fate even more poignant.


Notes:
  1. Rabindranath Tagore , “Punishment”, (1893), Shawkat Hussain (trans., November 2016), Gitanjali & Beyond. 1. 203. 10.14297/gnb.1.1.203-213.
  2. Durgas, “Punishment – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (4)”, Writersbrew, (6 August 2015).   

“Battleship Potemkin” - Sergei Eisenstein (1925)

Even though it is not shown very often these days, Sergei M. Eisenstein’s silent film Battleship Potemkin (1925) has long been regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.  It was ranked 11th on the British Film Institute’s 2012 poll of international film critics [1] and ranked 75th on the BFI’s 2012 poll of international film directors [2].  Its fame rose quickly despite the fact that is was not a big hit at the box-office when it was released in Eisenstein’s native Russia, and its distribution elsewhere was often restricted due to the film’s propagandistic message promoting communist revolution. 

Eisenstein was only twenty-seven when he made Battleship Potemkin, which was his second feature film, following his similarly politically-intoned first feature, Strike (1925).  He went on to make a number of films over his varied directing career (see for example his Alexander Nevsky, 1938), but his lasting fame rests largely on Battleship Potemkin and on his subsequent film-theoretical writings [3,4].  Indeed Battleship Potemkin came to be seen as the exemplary showcase of Eisenstein’s ideas about film aesthetics and production. Thus the film soon achieved iconic status.

Eisenstein was particularly concerned with formulating a theoretical foundation for the relatively new medium of film expression, for which the crafted temporal arrangement of sequenced images was a process he referred to as “montage”.  Like his young contemporary film theoretician Lev Kuleshov, who taught at the Soviet National Film School, Eisenstein was aware of and concerned with the fact that a viewer’s perception and understanding of an individual film image (i.e. a shot) is very much influenced by the immediately preceding images, which provide a narrative context for the interpretation of that shot.  The synergistic effects of successive contrasting images on the viewer were what Eisenstein referred to as “collisions” [5,6].  By injecting and manipulating these collisions, a filmmaker could expressively convey his or her thematic message and heighten its dramatic impact.

The story of Battleship Potemkin concerns a real event that took place in 1905 during the Russian revolution of that year.  Sailors onboard the said battleship mutinied against the officers on the ship in June of that year, and the event was later hailed by Lenin as dramatic evidence concerning how the military could rise up and support a people’s revolution.  Eisenstein was commissioned by the Russian Communist government to make a film for the 20th anniversary of that historic event that would celebrate its revolutionary important.  The highly fictionalized account that Eisenstein went on to make of those events was thus intended to be an instrument of government propaganda and not so much concerned with historical accuracy.  In this respect Eisenstein visualized these events as a clash of general social forces rather than as a more customary  narrative depicting the conflict between key individual agents.

So when students of film look at Battleship Potemkin now, they are often interested in seeing how Eisenstein’s filmmaking ideas were manifested in his politicized account.  The film’s story is divided into five distinct acts, each of which has its own emotional message.

1.  Men and Maggots
The first act is devoted to a presentation of the unsatisfactory conditions of the sailors onboard the battleship.  It is clear early on that the sailors, who are symbolic of the Russian working class, are treated like dogs.  One sailor, Vakulinchuk, is seen urging his fellow abused shipmates to join with the popular revolution that was taking place at the time.  Finally the sailors erupt in complaints about the worm-infested meat they are being fed.  In response to their complaints, the stuffy ship’s doctor  assures them that the crawly creatures they see on the meat are only maggots, not worms, and that they should go ahead and eat the borscht that is made from the meat.  But the sailors refuse to eat it.

The message for this act is suffering injustice on the part of the upper classes towards the lower class in a corrupted system. Throughout this act, the sailors are not shown as individuals but as members of a suppressed class.  The officers shown are uniformly haughty and disdainful of the sailors, whom they see as beneath them.  Thus the oppressors are individualized, while the oppressed are more abstractly presented.

This is the weakest act in the film, because the elements in this section are not effectively organized as a narrative.

2.  Drama on the Quarterdeck
When the ship Commander Golikov learns about the insubordination of the borscht-spurning sailors, he orders everyone up on deck and summarily commands that about twenty randomly selected sailors be executed by firing squad.  To symbolize the generic aspect of these chosen victims, Eisenstein has the officers cover them with a tarpaulin as the armed men line up in front of them to shoot them. 

Just as they are about to shoot, Vakulinchuk shouts out to the firing squad members, “Brothers!  Who are you shooting at?”  The armed men lower their guns in disobedience of their orders, and a full-scale insurrection quickly ensues.  The sailors soon succeed in taking over control of the ship, and they kill all the ship’s officers by throwing them overboard.  During the melee, however, the heroic Vakulinchuk is shot and becomes a martyr.

One wonders how this mutiny could have been executed without some planning, but no such scenes are presented.   

The overall message for this act is righteous revenge and murderous hatred towards the oppressors.

3.  The Dead Man Calls Out
The pace of the film now slows and becomes mournful.  When the Potemkin arrives in the Odessa harbor, Vakulinchuk’s corpse is loaded onto the pier, and it quickly becomes a shrine symbolizing his martyrdom.  Crowds of sympathetic people paying mournful homage to the corpse are soon whipped into a frenzy of anger and hatred towards their czarist oppressors. 

The increased use of closeups on individual faces in this act moves the focus more to the human level.  The overall message and tone in this act is still primarily that of righteous hatred – but towards a class, rather than towards individuals.

4.  The Odessa Steps
The memorable Odessa Steps act begins with the people now joyfully coming to greet the Potemkin, many traveling out to the ship in the water on a flotilla of small boats.  A large crowd of well-wishers also streams continuously down an open concrete staircase that extends down to the water's edge.  But suddenly a group of armed guards from the Czar’s army appears at the top of the staircase and begins systematically shooting at the crowd, which includes many women and children.  The ensuing slaughter is graphically filmed and edited, with rapid cuts between the merciless soldiers and the suffering women and children.  An iconic image is that of an unguided baby carriage careening wildly down the staircase after the baby’s mother has been shot dead. 

The emphasis here is on the contrast (the “collision”) between the inhuman mechanization of the soldiers and the pathos of the vulnerable women and children being massacred.  Thus the message is that of agonized suffering cruelty at the hands of inhuman perpetrators.  Some critics have gone so far as suggesting that the cruel and machine-like soldiers are embodiments of the masculine principle, while the suffering victims, who draw our sympathies, are embodiments of the feminine [7].  (Note, though, that the film as a whole seems to appeal more to male viewers than female viewers [8].) 

In retaliation for this slaughter on the Odessa Steps, the Potemkin battleship in the harbor fires its cannons on the Czar’s government headquarters building.

5.  Rendezvous with the Squadron
The final act is all tense expectation and, like the previous act, is tightly edited.  The Potemkin’s rebellious sailors, knowing the Czar’s military will send a punitive squadron out to attack them, get ready for a deadly confrontation.  They make grim and careful preparations through the night to get ready for the battle.  When dawn arrives, they see a squadron of government destroyers, and the Potemkin presents to them a semaphore signal to “Join Us”.  At the last minute, just as hostile shots are about to be fired, the ships draw close enough for the Potemkin crew to see the sailors on the government ships cheering them.  They, too, are apparently ready to join the revolution.

So the message here is that of solidarity and the triumphant joining of forces to wage a common battle.


As the film proceeds through its five acts, the pace quickens and the momentum builds.  So the second half of the film is better than the first.  One element that deserves special mention is the cinematography of Eduard Tisse.  Even though the editing pace means that most camera shots are of short duration, they all seem carefully composed, many of them from high and low angles, for maximum atmospheric effect [7]. 

However, I feel that the film’s overall narrative suffers from a lack of individual focalization.  By focalization, I mean seeing things from the perspective of an individual participant in the story.  Most films have this kind of focalization over the course of the story presentation, and this goes beyond just point-of-view shots – we see what is happening from the perspective of an unseen witness (the camera) that is, to a certain extent, a silent partner of the character being focalized.  Thus we share that character’s field of view and only know what that character knows during that period of focalization.  Some films only focalize on one character throughout the course of the story, but most films will individually focalize on several characters before the story concludes.  In Battleship Potemkin there is almost no individual focalization, except briefly on the sailor Vakulinchuk and on a mother carrying her gunshot child.  Instead, the viewer’s narrative perspective is from a more scattered, global perspective that represents a “God’s eye view” of what is going on.  The overall effect is to reduce the viewer’s empathetic engagement and, in its stead, increase resentful alienation.

This avoidance of individual human sub-narratives is what makes Battleship Potemkin more of a visual disquisition than what we usually characterize as a story. Eisenstein’s intent was to evoke our support for the people collectively, rather than for any individual character in the narrative.  And the top-down message of this emotional disquisition is one celebrating hatred, revenge, and violent repudiation – essentially a basic pro-war message. In keeping with Marxist historical materialism, there are no spiritual or religious message invoked here.  In fact during the Potemkin mutiny, a prophet-like ship’s priest appears on deck; but he is dismissed by the rebellious sailors as a sham sorcerer.  Any notions of compassion, forgiveness, and love are nowhere to be seen in this work. The focus is on more primitive aggressive feelings. Thus the individual primitive emotive messages of the five acts:
  • suffering injustice, 
  • revenge, 
  • hatred, 
  • suffering cruelty, and 
  • joining a common war effort
 – all contribute to the film’s basic pro-conflict theme (it is no wonder that Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels admired this film [9]). 

So Battleship Potemkin stands as an excellent demonstration of how to use cinematic tools to fashion a work invoking and supporting our most violent passions.  But what has perhaps most fascinated people over the years since its release is Eisenstein’s underlying theory of cinematic “collisions” that can be used to evoke those strong passions.
★★½

Notes:
  1. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012). 
  2. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).
  3. Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense, Jay Leyda (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1942). 
  4. Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form, Jay Leyda, (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1949).
  5. Sergei Eisenstein, “Collision of Ideas”, (selection from "The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram”, Film Form, Jay Leyda (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1949/1957), pp. 37-40.), Film, A Montage of Theories, Richard Dyer MacCann (ed.), E. P. Dutton, (1966), pp. 34-37.
  6. Evelyn Gerstein, “Russia’s Film Wizard”, Theater Guild Magazine (February 1930), included in Introduction to the Art of the Movies, Lewis Jacobs, (ed.), (1960), pp. 134-139.
  7. Helen Grace, “1925: Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein)”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 85, (November 2017).   
  8. “Battleship Potemkin (1925) User Ratings”, IMDb, (28 February 2018).    
  9. “Battleship Potemkin”, Wikipedia, (26 February 2018).