“Letters to Father Jacob” - Klaus Härö (2009)

Letters to Father Jacob (Postia pappi Jaakobille, 2009), a film set in remote rural Finland, shows mostly the interactions of two isolated people who have trouble interacting with anyone.  Both of these people are very lonely and come to question whether their lives have any meaning; but circumstances have thrown them together.  You might think that, with such restrictions on interactions, it would be very difficult to make a film on this subject, but Finnish writer/director Klaus Härö and his crew do an admirable job [1,2,3,4].

The film, which is based on an original story by Jaana Makkonen, concerns a middle-aged woman, Leila Sten (played by Kaarina Hazard) who has just been pardoned after serving twelve years of a life-term prison sentence.  During her time in prison, Leila was never visited by a family member, and she never applied for temporary leave, either.  She is now a cold-hearted, taciturn misanthrope who barely responds to any efforts to communicate with her.  Since Leila is perhaps the key personage in this story, depicting her persona is crucial to the telling of this tale.  The cinematography (by Tuomo Hutri) and editing (by Samu Heikkilä) is critical to this effort, because a number of darkly-lit scenes opening with wide-angle master-shots are followed by slow conversations in closeup.  These conversations feature many nearly expressionless reaction shots on the part of Leila that subtly display her disdain and indifference concerning what is being said to her.

Anyway, now with nowhere to go on her release, Leila is offered a job working for an old priest in a remote parsonage; so she reluctantly takes it.  When she arrives at the rectory, Leila discovers that the old priest, Father Jacob Ljube (Heikki Nousiainen), is completely blind, and her job is to read intercessory letters that arrive every day beseeching Father Jacob to pray to God for the supplicant’s welfare.  For example, a woman living alone might write to Father Jacob that her dog has run away, and she asks him to pray to God that her dog would return to her.  Father Jacob assures Leila that
“It’s important that people know that none of God’s children are useless and forgotten.”
But Leila, an unrefined, stout, and sullen middle-aged woman, has no interest in these things or in the kindly Father Jacob.  Other than reading the daily letters, she barely says a word to him.  Leila does correctly guess, however, that Father Jacob was behind her getting a pardon from her life-term prison sentence.  When she tells him that, he responds by saying that
“I’m only an instrument of God’s mercy.”
So their boring life goes on, interrupted only by the brief daily visits of the letter carrier (Jukka Keinonen) bringing more intercessory letters to Father Jacob.  The letter carrier, however, grows suspicious of the dour former prison “lifer” living with Father Jacob and worries that she may bring harm to him.  When he sneaks inside one afternoon to investigate, he gets throttled by the robust Leila, and after that he is reluctant to come to the rectory [5].  And soon it doesn’t matter, because the flow of letters to Father Jacob finally falls to zero.

With no letters coming in, Father Jacob gets desperate, and so he dresses up in his formal religious garb and arranges for Leila to walk him over to the church so that he can conduct a scheduled wedding ceremony.  But noone shows up for the wedding, and Leila begins to realize that Jacob is descending into senility.  Father Jacob is starting to feel useless and asks Leila to guide him back home.  But Leila refuses and walks out of the church alone.  She is fed up.

Back at the rectory, Leila packs up her bag, steals some of Father Jacob’s money, and calls a taxi to come pick her up.  However, when the taxi arrives, the driver asks her where she wants to go, and Leila is speechless.  She realizes she doesn’t have anywhere on earth to go.  Now at the bottom of her despair, she goes back inside and prepares a rope with which to commit suicide.

The emotional tide of Letters to Father Jacob has reached its lowest ebb.  Our two protagonists are now in utter despair.  Father Jacob is lying on the church floor feeling abandoned by God and starts wondering if all his past intercessory prayers were just for the sake of his own ego.  And Leila is in the rectory grimly putting a noose around her neck. 

But then Father Jacob manages to find his way back to the rectory and unknowingly interrupts Leila’s suicide attempt.  This life-saving intervention induces a change in Leila, and she goes ahead and arranges for a fake letter-reading session to cheer up the feeling-abandoned Father Jacob.  She plans to make up and recite some intercessory requests in her head and pretend to read them to Father Jacob.  In the event, though, Leila begins thinking about her own past horrific transgressions, and she tearfully fabricates a request based on her own real, sinful past.  This is the first time that the perpetually scowling Leila shows feeling and sensitivity in her facial expression.  She concludes her message by wondering
“Who can forgive someone like me?”
Suspecting that this account is Leila’s own confession and probably her very first opening-up to God (or perhaps to anyone, for that matter), Father Jacob softly responds with
“What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
x
This heartfelt exchange proves to be salvational for both Leila and Father Jacob.  By reaching out to each other, they have set themselves back on benevolent, meaningful paths.  Depending upon your perspective, you could say this benevolence was achieved through either (a) the instrumentality of religion as a social toll or (b) their serving as instruments of God’s benignity.  In any case, direction has now been restored to their lives.

The ending of Letters to Father Jacob, which I will leave to you to see, is sad, but it is in keeping with the realistic tenor of this tale.  We don’t know what will happen to Leila, but now there is at least hope.

In any case, this is a thoughtful film that you might enjoy.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Betsy Sharkey, “Movie review: ‘Letters to Father Jacob’”, Los Angeles Times, (15 October 2010).   
  2. Jeannette Catsoulis “The Ex-Con and the Priest”, The New York Times, (7 October 2010).   
  3. Andrew Schenker, “Review: Letters to Father Jacob”, Slant Magazine, (3 October 2010).   
  4. Nathan Southern, “Letters to Father Jacob”, TV Guide, (n.d.).   
  5. A friend suggested to me that the letter carrier’s sneak-in visit to the rectory was actually an instance of the letter carrier’s efforts to replenish the dwindling flow of letters to the priest by stealing some already-delivered letters that Father Jacob stored under his bed.  By recycling old letters, the letter carrier could maintain the falsehood that the intercessory letters were not diminishing.  I doubt this interpretation was the case, but you can consider the possibility when you see the film.

Klaus Härö

Films of  Klaus Härö:

“Gran Torino” - Clint Eastwood (2008)

Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008) was well-received by critics upon its release and seen as a presumable swan song for the then 78-year-old actor/director.   After all, the film seemed to offer a reflective take on some of the characteristic themes in Eastwood’s films: morality, personal justice, and revenge.  And although Eastwood has amazingly gone on to direct nine more films since then, some people would say that Gran Torino still stands as a significant Eastwood statement on the appropriateness of revenge.  In fact some critics felt that Eastwood was finally turning his back on revenge entirely in this film [1].  This was significant, because over the course of forty years, Eastwood had become the iconic face of vengeance – in such films as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Dirty Harry (1971, plus four sequels), and Unforgiven (1992).

Gran Torino, too, includes aspects of vengeance, but it also features some comedic elements and reflections on the decay of traditional American family life.  The question is – does this film show a novel Eastwood renunciation of revenge as a moral instrument?  I would say it does not.

The story of the film, which is scripted by Nick Schenk, is set in a decaying residential neighborhood in Detroit and concerns a retired auto assembly-line worker, Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood), who had served in the Korean War (1950-53).  Given those dates, we can guess that the cantankerous Kowalski must now be in his late 70's.  Throughout this story, which comprises five parts, the two themes of retributive justice and family-love redemption keep reappearing.

1.  Two Neighboring Families

The film begins with the traditional Catholic funeral of Walt’s wife, in the attendance of which are the families of Walt’s two grown sons, Mitch and Steve.  Both sons are preoccupied with their own middle-class materialistic concerns and have no interest in and have long since abandoned socializing with their curmudgeonly old father.  As far as they are concerned, Walt should now be shipped off to a rest home.  But Walt wants to stay living in his old house, even though the neighborhood is increasingly rundown and now overrun by new Hmong refugee families from Southeast Asia.  The Hmong people are very family-oriented, just the opposite of the familial-isolated Walt Kowalski.  Walt’s only interests are his dog, his perfectly preserved 1972 Ford Gran Torino, and keeping neighborhood children off his lawn. 

Early on we see Hmong teenager Thao Lor (Bee Vang), who lives next door to Walt, forcibly recruited by his cousin “Spider” (Doua Moua) to join a Hmong street gang.  Thao’s gang initiation assignment is to steal Walt’s Gran Torino.  But Thao bungles the attempt, and Walt almost shoots him with his rifle.

2.  Getting to Know Walt and the Lors
In this part we get know a little more about Walt and the Lors.  Shortly after the botched Gran Torino theft incident, Spider’s Hmong gang starts to punish Thao by roughing him up on the street, but Walt intervenes with his rifle and chases the gang members away.  Later a rival black gang threatens to sexually harass another young member of the Lor family, Sue (Ahney Her), but again the gun-wielding Walt comes to the rescue.

The Lor family are extraordinarily grateful for these interventions, and they come over and shower Walt’s front porch with gifts.  They also compel Thao to come to Walt and formally apologize for his earlier wrongdoing.   

However, we see that Walt didn’t do these things out of kindness; he did them out of hatred and contempt for racial minorities.  Walt is a hard-core racist – he repeatedly calls all the people in his neighborhood “chinks”, “slopes”, “slants”, and “gooks” – an attitude that probably goes back to his experiences in the massively deadly Korean War (roughly 3 million Asians killed [2]).  In fact Walt is the kind of ignorant urban redneck (IUR) that today makes up the core support for Donald Trump. 

Nevertheless, Sue manages to coax Walt into coming over to the Lor household for a wider-family luncheon party, where Walt is shown that the Lors are indeed human beings.  Afterwards, the Lor family insist that, as an act of penance, Thao must come over and work for Walt for a full week.

3.  Walt and Thao
Walt reluctantly takes Thao on, and as Thao performs various odd jobs for Walt, they gradually warm up to each other.  In fact Thao gradually becomes something of a new son to Walt, and Walt’s intuitive paternal concern for Thao is increasingly invoked.  This is culminated when Walt gives Thao permission to use his prized Gran Torino to go out on a date that Walt has encouraged for Thao.  It is in this section of the film that the beauties and subtleties of family concern are brought to the fore.

However, when Thao gets roughed-up again by Spider’s gang, Walt angrily goes over to the gang  members’ house and brutally beats one of their members. 

4.  Hmong Gang Retaliation
We now seem to be in something of a gang war, but a decidedly unequal one.  It is Spider’s Hmong gang versus the Lor family “gang”, which has only one warrior – Walt.  That night Spider’s gang drives up to the Lor house and delivers a massive fusillade of bullets through the windows.  Many of the Lor family members are seriously wounded from the attack.  Then Sue, who had been out at this time, staggers home after having been viciously raped and beaten by the gang members. 

When Walt learns what happened, he is consumed with hatred.  Young Catholic priest Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), who had presided over the funeral of Walt’s wife and who has always earlier been seen advocating forgiveness, comes to visit Walt; but he, too, is filled with anger and doesn’t know what to counsel this time.

So is Eastwood setting up the viewer for another customary vengeance-filled finale?

5.  A Coming to Terms?

The next day Thao comes over to Walt’s house seeking revenge.  For him, Walt is his uncompromising “Exterminating Angel” suitable for the task.  However, Walt puts him off and tells him to come back later that afternoon.  Then Walt calmly goes out to buy a new suit, gets a haircut, and goes to the church to confess his life’s sins to Father Janovich.  Having recently come to feel paternal affection for a young Asian boy, Walt now feels guilt over having long ago killed thirteen young men in the Korean War.  When Thao comes back later, Walt tricks him into getting locked in his basement.  He evidently wants to keep the vengeful boy out of danger. 

That evening Walt goes to the Hmong gang members’ house and stands there in the front lawn loudly berating them, which attracts the attention of many neighboring onlookers.  When he slowly reaches into his inside coat pocket, suggesting to the watching gang members that he is reaching for his gun, they all blast him with a deadly round of bullets.  But Walt was unarmed and was only reaching for his cigarette lighter.  It is clear that he had staged his own heavily-witnessed murder so that he could have the gang members arrested by the quickly arriving police and given lengthy prison sentences.

Later, at the reading of Walt’s last will and testament and with his younger family members eagerly in attendance, it is revealed that he leaves nothing to his family.  He bequeaths his house to the church (i.e. the community) and his beloved Gran Torino to Thao.

A number of reviewers have liked this film, because they view Walt’s final act of sacrifice as heroic [3], and/or they see Walt as ultimately having undergone a transformation suggesting the possibility of a reconciliation between traditionally prejudiced working-class America and non-white immigrant communities [1,4,5].  And the eponymous Ford Gran Torino is a symbol of this sector of American society in need of a more conciliatory outlook.  As Manohla Dargis remarked [4]:
“Made in the 1960s and ’70s, the Gran Torino was never a great symbol of American automotive might, which makes Walt’s love for the car more poignant. It was made by an industry that now barely makes cars, in a city that hardly works, in a country that too often has felt recently as if it can’t do anything right anymore . . .  “
But is it realistic to believe that Walt Kowalski really underwent a transformation fueled by ersatz familial love?  I am in sympathy with critics who question the plausibility of such a reading [5].  To me, Walt is a racist curmudgeon to the very end.  His final action is very much a hate-fueled act of revenge.  Knowing that his future life allotment was limited, Walt chose to carry out the most destructive action he could think of that would inflict the most pain on his collective adversaries through the instrumentality of the punitive system.  This was not an act of heroism or a quest for justice – it was just the maximal possible punishment.

It would have been better for this narrative to have been constructed so that Walt, through his gradual familial relationship with Thao, would develop a more humane way of interacting with all people.  Instead, he relapsed into his own form of self-sacrificing revenge.

So in my opinion, Gran Torino is just another revenge movie, but it lacks the ameliorating narrative elements that are sometimes present in other, more-satisfying Eastwood movies.
½

Notes:
  1. John Patterson, “On film: A farewell to vengeance”, The Guardian, (19 December 2008).  
  2. “Casualties”, “Korean War”, Wikipedia, (20 June 2020).    
  3. Roger Ebert, “Get off my lawn”, RogerEbert.com, (17 December 2008).   
  4. Manohla Dargis, “Hope for a Racist, and Maybe a Country”, The New York Times, (11 December 2008).   
  5. Maryann Johanson, “Gran Torino (review)”, FlickFilosopher, (2 January 2009).   

“On the Waterfront” - Elia Kazan (1954)

On the Waterfront (1954) stands as one of the most famous and honored films of its period and for a number of reasons [1].  It was nominated for twelve Oscars (Academy Awards) and won eight of them, including those for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.  And in 2007 it was ranked by the American Film Institute as the nineteenth-greatest American movie of all time [2].  It is also probably actor Marlon Brando’s most famous performance [3].  In addition, there were socio-political aspects of the film that were associated with controversial political activities of the time.  The film's story was inspired by a series of articles, Crime on the Waterfront, by Malcolm Johnson that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949.

Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan was already famous as both a stage director and film director, and in particular, he was noted for directing dramas that had social ramifications.  And such was the case here, too, in On the Waterfront, which concerned corruption among longshoremen’s dock workers unions in the U.S.  The film is a drama about a longshoreman who is asked to testify against union corruption under threatening circumstances.  But that was precisely a situation that Kazan, himself, had faced in real life when he was called in 1952 by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC to testify about his past membership in the American Communist Party and to provide names of professional colleagues who had also been members.  Facing the threat of being black-listed, Kazan did supply some names, and for that he was later accused in the film profession of being a traitor to the cause of free expression.  Anyway, some critics have since felt that On the Waterfront was Kazan’s answer to this criticism.  Although this matter may be an interesting topic of discussion for some, to me it is a distraction from looking at the film’s own merits, and I will not discuss it further here.  For those interested, you can find more information about this HUAC issue here [4,5].

Certainly On the Waterfront had its own merits on which to stand [6,7,8].  The film featured outstanding production values, and it won Oscars in this area for Best Story and Screenplay (Budd Schulberg), Best Cinematography (Boris Kaufman, who years earlier was the cinematographer for Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934)), and Best Film Editing (Gene Milford).  The acting was superb, as well.  Oscar-winning Brando, of course, was famous for his Stanislavski-inspired Method acting, and he showed if off to good effect in this film.  But there were four other acting performers who also received Oscar nominations – Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint (in her first feature film appearance – she would later memorably appear in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959)).  One Oscar nominee whose contributions were, to me, of lesser value was musical composer Leonard Bernstein.  Although I delighted in Bernstein’s music for West Side Story (1961), his music here in On the Waterfront is often intrusive and distracting to the narrative flow.

The story of On the Waterfront is dominated by five people (all Oscar nominated roles, by the way) who represent contrasting perspectives on life:
  • Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando) is a longshoreman who had once had a promising career as a prize-fighter.  His perspective now is to just look out for himself.  At one point he says that his philosophy is “do it to him before he does it to you”.  But he does have a conscience, and it is that side of him that some others appeal to.
     
  • Father Barry (Karl Malden) is a local priest.  He preaches that Christ is always beside you, but more importantly, he believes in reliance on the rule-of-law in order for justice to be maintained for all.
     
  • Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) is the ruthless and corrupt longshoremen’s union boss who will stop at nothing in order to maintain his supremacy.
     
  • Charley "the Gent" Malloy (Rod Steiger) is Terry Malloy’s older brother and the #2 man in the union hierarchy.  He has conflicted loyalties – he is an opportunist who profits from working under Johnny Friendly, but he also doesn’t want to see harm come to his brother.
     
  • Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), a convent student studying to become a nun, falls in love with Terry.  She believes in personal virtue, but she wants to run away with Terry in order to escape the widespread evil that she sees infecting the dockside.
All of these characters are very theatrically played, and yet the raw reality of the dockside settings in Hoboken, New Jersey, near New York City, lend a quasi-neo-realistic feeling to the proceedings.  But the five perspectives listed here form the basis of an ethical/moral debate that is at the heart of the story.  The On the Waterfront narrative goes through about eight sequences that constitute the story.  Each one of these segments features moral discussions about what is the right thing to do.

1.  An Injustice
Early on Terry Malloy is shown unwittingly luring his popular workmate Joey Doyle into getting murdered by longshoremen’s union thugs.  Terry, who had thought that the union was just going to rough up Joey a little bit, goes to Mob-affiliated union boss Johnny Friendly to ask why Joey was murdered.  He is sternly lectured by Johnny that Joey had agreed to testify to the Waterfront Crime Commission about union-Mob malfeasance and that therefore Joey had to be bumped off for disloyalty.  This is the morality of the urban jungle, and it is the first of the moral exchanges that take place in the story.

Meanwhile Joey’s sister, Edie, is distraught over her brother’s death, and she harshly scolds local priest Father Barry for his remote passivity about concerns on the ground.  The outcome of this second moral exchange of the story is that it inspires Father Barry to go the dockside and become a “waterfront priest”.

At the dockside we see just h ow precarious is the work situation for the dock workers.  The hopeful workers gather on the pier each day hoping to be chosen by the union foreman for a day’s work.  Many are not selected (somewhat like today’s gig-economy, but worse).  When Father Barry sees how unhappy the workers are, he invites them to come for a meeting at the church, where they can talk freely.

2.  The Church Meeting
Having heard about the upcoming church meeting, union officer Charley Malloy gets his younger brother Terry to attend the meeting and to record what happens.  At the meeting, which is attended by some of the workers and Edie, the third moral exchange takes place.  Worker “Kayo” Dugan (Pat Henning) explains to Father Barry that all the workers are afraid to speak out about mob-union wrongdoings, and so they follow a policy of “D and D” – deaf and dumb.  Father Barry counters by urging them to believe in the rightfulness of the rule-of-law and that he will stand with them if they speak out against injustice.

However, the meeting is then broken up by baseball-bat-wielding Mob hooligans who beat and injure the workers as they flee the church.  In the turmoil, Terry manages to usher Edie out to safety.

3.  Terry and Edie
As Terry walks Edie home, they gradually get to know each other.  Thanks in part to the fact that Edie still doesn’t know about the part that Terry played in her brother’s death, a mutual amorous attraction tentatively develops.  This is one of the most sensitive and beautiful parts of the film, and it is during these sequences that the fourth moral exchange takes place.  Edie is attracted to Terry, but she is politely appalled by the outright selfishness that Terry professes.  At one point their contrasting views are highlighted when Edie proclaims “shouldn't everybody care about everybody else?” and further that “everybody is part of everybody else”; while Terry counters by saying that his own philosophy is “do it to him before he does it to you”. 

4.  The Death of Kayo
It is then revealed that Kayo Dugan, inspired by Father Barry’s words at the church meeting, had gone to the Waterfront Crime Commission to testify against the union.  The next day Johnny Friendly arranges to have Kayo killed in a staged “accident” that Terry witnesses in horror.  Father Barry arrives at the dockside scene and proclaims that Kayo’s death is nothing less than a crucifixion.  His ensuing impromptu sermon about Christ – “Christ is always with you” – visibly moves Terry, whose conscience is finally starting to be stirred.

There are further moral exchanges that Terry has with both Father Barry and Edie that lead to his confession to them concerning his role in Joey Doyle’s death.  As we might expect, Edie is horrified by this revelation and shuns further engagement with Terry.

5.  Terry and Charley
With Terry having been served a subpoena by the Waterfront Crime Commission, Johnny Friendly is worried about the loyalty of Terry, and he orders Charley to turn his brother around or he will have him killed.  So Charley goes to pickup Terry, and they have a famous conversation in the backseat of the cab.  Charley offers Terry, in turn, entreaties, bribes, and threats, but to no avail.  Terry is depressed at the kind of person he has become, and he wants to do something that will help him turn his life around.  Recalling a time when he had, at Charley’s behest, ruined his promising career by throwing a crucial boxing match so that Johnny Friendly could win a big wager, he laments to Charley:
“I could have had class.  I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody . . . instead of a bum.”
They agree to part, and Terry gets out of the cab, while Charley, unknowingly, lets the cabbie take him to his own execution at the hands of the Mob.

6.  Terry and Edie Again
Terry now goes to Edie’s apartment and forces his way in.  Then he forces his affections on her, and despite the misgivings she had felt towards him, she succumbs to his embrace.  But immediately they here a voice from outside on the street calling on Terry to come down and help his brother Charlie.  When Terry goes down, he sees his brother’s corpse hung up on a meat-hook. 

Edie pleads with Terry for them to run away together, but Terry wants revenge.  He goes, armed with the gun his brother had given him, to Friendly’s bar, looking to knock off his nemesis.  Johnny Friendly isn’t there at that moment, but Father Barry shows up and struggles to dissuade Terry from violent revenge.  He tells Terry he can get his revenge in the courtroom tomorrow, by using the truth.

7. The Courtroom
In the courtroom Terry and all the union officers are there.  With Johnny Friendly casting menacing glares at him, Terry testifies anyway, and he heroically tells the truth about what he knows of Joey Doyle’s murder.  This testimony will probably lead to Johnny Friendly’s indictment.  Now the film could have ended here on a triumphant note.  But the story continues, and what now transpires is somewhat problematic.

After his courtroom testimony, Terry is shunned by neighbors as a “stool pigeon”.  And when he goes up to his apartment rooftop and looks at Joey Doyle’s coop of pigeons that he had been guiltily looking after since Joey’s death, he sees that all the pigeons have now been killed.  Edie shows up and again pleads that they should run away together from this dockside world of D-and-D.  But Terry is still obsessed with revenge.  

8.  The Finale at the Dockside

The next day Terry goes to the dockside hiring session, but the union foreman, unsurprisingly, refuses to hire him.  So, with the gathered workers just timidly watching, Terry walks over to the dockside union shack, where, dismissing Father Barry’s past pleas to him to restrain himself, he calls for Johnny Friendly to come out for a confrontation.  When Johnny Friendly emerges, Terry defiantly boasts how proud he is to have exposed the corrupt boss.  The ensuing heated argument soon degenerates into a scuffle, and then a gang of Friendly’s henchmen beat up Terry to within an inch of life.
 

With Terry still lying knocked-out on the edge of the pier, Friendly orders the workers into the warehouse to start working.  But they say they won’t work without Terry.  Father Barry and Edie now arrive, and they revive the battered Terry and help him to his feet.  Father Barry insists to the bloodied and barely conscious Terry that to “win the war”, he must walk unaided up the pier walkway and into the warehouse.  With great effort, Terry manages to do this, and the other workers follow after him, symbolizing their abandonment of Johnny Friendly’s corrupt union.


So the essence of On the Waterfront, what is at its very heart, is a series of exchanges in each of the eight segments that concern morality and conscience.   The corrupt, unconscionable dog-eat-dog world is symbolized to various degrees by Charlie Malloy (passive) and Johnny Friendly (aggressive).  And the virtuous path is symbolized by Edie Doyle (passive) and Father Barry (aggressive).  Thus Edie is mostly concerned with personal virtue and just wants to run away with Terry to somewhere where they can be alone.  On the other hand, Father Barry is concerned with social justice.  He wants to fight for the benefit of all the dock workers.  Interestingly, however, even though both Father Barry and Edie are more or less people “of the cloth”, they do not spend much time talking about praying to God.  Their values seem just as much humanistic as spiritual.  Father Barry’s main instrument for social justice, for example, is adherence to the rule-of-law, rather than divine intervention or divine retribution in the afterlife.

Terry, and in particular his conscience, is the target of all the moral assertions of the above four people.  He starts out in total innocence, but he is forced to face up to the various claims and demands of the key people in his life.  To some extent he is something of a moral guinea pig; but in the end Father Barry’s passionate recommendations to have faith in the rule-of-law seem to win him over.

Whether or not you buy the ending to On the Waterfront, though, will probably depend on your personal taste.  It is not very clear what exactly has been accomplished by Terry’s act of personal bravery and sacrifice.  Certainly it was good that he did not, in the end, resort to vengeful violence with his gun.  But will the worker solidarity that seems to have been momentarily evoked by Terry’s heroic actions endure and have lasting consequences?  That we don’t know.  Johnny Friendly is still out there, and Terry’s plans or way forward are not at all clear.  Nevertheless, we can still feel exhilaration over the uplifting change that has taken place inside Terry.

And in any case, we can also appreciate On the Waterfront’s uniquely moving cinematic presentation that combines (a) theatrically dramatic acting on the part of the five main characters with (b) the film’s emotive mix of expressionistic and neorealistic cinematography.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. “Awards and honors”, “On the Waterfront”, Wikipedia, (20 May 2020).     
  2. “AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)”, American Film Institute,  (20 June 2007).   
  3. A. H. Weiler, “Brando Stars in Film Directed by Kazan”, The New York Times, (29 July 1954).   
  4. “On The Waterfront”, Buffalo Film Seminars, (29 March 2000).   
  5. Peter Biskind, ‘The Politics of Power in “On the Waterfront’”, Film Quarterly (1975) 29 (1): 25–38.   
  6. Michael Almereyda, “On the Waterfront: Everybody Part of Everybody Else”, The Criterion Collection, (19 February 2013).   
  7. Roger Ebert, “On the Waterfront”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (21 March 1999).   
  8. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “On The Waterfront”, Jonathan Rosenbaum, (1 January 1990).  

Elia Kazan

Films of Elia Kazan:

“The Go-Between” - Joseph Losey (1971)

There is something brilliant about Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971), even though, as I will discuss, the film has some flaws.  Based on L. P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between (1953), the film was the third and last pairing of director Losey and scriptwriter Harold Pinter, following The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967).  Although those two earlier collaborations resulted in outstanding films, The Go-Between is, to me, the best of the three.  

Perhaps because the film largely concerns the coming-of-age struggles of a young boy in a class-dominated society, the film seems to have been more appreciated in Europe than in America [1,2,3]. There it won the Grand Prix (aka the Palme d’Or) at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, and it was nominated for an astonishing twelve British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Awards – Best Film, Best Direction, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor (2 people), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Soundtrack, and Most Promising Newcomer.  One person who wasn’t nominated but who should have been was Michel Legrand, whose haunting piano-based score is a key contributing feature to the film’s moody greatness.

Although I said the film concerns the coming-of-age struggles of a young boy, this is not just a coming-of-age story.  The boy’s perspective serves as a lens on a number of personal and social themes, including 
  • the impact of lasting memories
  • the nature and value of gentility
  • the distinctions between love and romantic passion – and the role sex plays in these feelings
  • the degree to which femininity and womanhood both empowered and enslaved women in traditional upperclass British society.
And anyway, in this story the boy never does satisfactorily come of age.

The story of The Go-Between begins with a sermonic statement:
    "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
Then it opens in around 1900 showing twelve-year-old Leo Colston (sensitively played by Dominic Guard) having come as a summer guest to Brandham Hall, the wealthy family estate of his school friend, Marcus Maudsley (Richard Gibson), in Norfolk, England.  Leo comes from less wealthy family circumstances, and he struggles to live up to the proud presumptuousness of his rich classmate and his family.  However, Leo is cordially made to feel welcome by some members of the family circle – Marcus’s genteel mother, Mrs. Maudsley (Margaret Leighton); Marcus’s beautiful older sister, Marian (Julie Christie); and Hugh (Edward Fox), who as Viscount Trimingham is the owner of the estate.

Probably as a defense mechanism to the bullying rampant in English boarding schools, Leo has become known in school as someone who can cast magical curses on those who bully him.  Leo’s curses and incantations seem to have constituted a significant element in the novel, but here in the film, although they are occasionally shown, they don’t amount to much, and they are only a distraction [3].  So their inclusion is one of the film’s weaknesses.

Another weakness is occasioned by brief and cryptic flash-forwards (the first one of which appears early on in the film) to a time some fifty years later, showing an elderly man (Michael Redgrave), who we will eventually learn is the aged Leo Colston, coming to visit Brandham Hall.  The viewer can guess this is a flash-forward by the 1950-ish automobile shown in the shot, but its significance is initially unclear.  There are about a dozen of these flash-forwards interspersed throughout the film, and only at the end will their meaning be cleared up.  (At that point the viewer might come to the conclusion that the entire film up to this point has actually been an extended flashback into the past.)  This flash-forward/flashback mechanism was a significant narrative element in the novel, but it doesn’t work well in the film [1,2,3].  The flash-forwards here in the film are too sketchy and only a source of confusion early on.

Anyway, as the story proceeds, Marcus soon comes down with the measles, and so Leo has lost his only playmate at Brandham Hall.  Looking for ways to distract himself, Leo now wanders over to play in the haystack at the neighboring Black Farm, where he meets the tenant farmer there, Ted Burgess (Alan Bates).  Ted is a roughhewn member of the working class, whose unpolished manner contrasts markedly with that of the high-class crowd over at Brandham Hall. 
  
After Ted attends to Leo’s skinned knee, which was injured in a fall off the haystack, the two of them become friendly, and Ted asks Leo to carry a secret written message of his to Marian.  Not knowing what the message might contain, Leo willingly and clandestinely delivers the message to Marian.  Soon Leo becomes the “secret postman” for Marian and Ted, repeatedly delivering confidential messages between the two young adults, who, because of class distinctions, do not publicly socialize with each other.  So Leo is their go-between.

One person Marian does sometimes socialize with is Hugh, who is a dashing young gentleman but whose face was severely scarred earlier in the Boer conflict.  Leo likes both Hugh and Ted, but he gradually suspects something special is going on between Marian and Ted, and the rest of the family is not supposed to know about it.  This is disturbing for Leo, because he clearly has a crush on Marian.  On occasions when he is alone with Ted, the naive Leo keeps asking him what it is that goes on between men and women in secret.  Couching his inquisitiveness, he asks Ted how it came to be that one of his horses came to have a foal.  Ted evasively responds that the mare had engaged in “spooning” with another horse, but he doesn’t explain what ‘spooning’ is.

Eventually, Marcus recovers from the measles, and they all attend a cricket match involving local participants.  In the match Ted is clearly the star batsman, repeatedly knocking bowler Hugh’s pitches for boundaries and sixes, and Leo surprisingly makes a spectacular catch of a ball hit by Ted.  Afterwards in the clubhouse, both Ted and Leo sing songs for the collected participants, and Leo is feeling more and more like an accepted member of this social group.

But afterwards, Marcus tells Leo a secret: his sister Marian is engaged to be married to Hugh.  This news disturbs Leo, and he separately tells both Marian and Ted, without explanation, that he wants to stop being their secret postman.  This doesn’t go down well with Marian and Ted, and they both express their anger with Leo.

Leo is still puzzled about romantic passions, and one day he now asks Hugh to explain a story that Leo had read about two men who fought a duel over one of the men’s wife.  But, Leo tells Hugh, he himself suspects that it was actually the wife who was at fault.  Hugh responds solemnly that
        “nothing is ever a lady’s fault”.
Leo later also overhears a guarded conversation between Hugh and Marian’s father (Michael Gough) that seems to indicate, to the viewer, that they know something is going on between Ted and Marian.  The polite solution to this problem, according to Hugh, is to have Ted go off and join the army.  When Leo goes to say his goodbye to Ted, he asks him if he will really join the army.  Ted resignedly answers that he will do that if that is what Marian wants.  These are indications that in those days, the feminine ideal not only restricted women, it impose its restrictions on men, too.

And when Leo goes to say his goodbye to Marian, he asks her, “Why don’t you marry Ted?”  But she only glumly responds, “I can’t”.  Not fully understanding, Leo then asks her, “But why are you marrying Hugh?” And Marian tearfully replies, “Because I must.”  This is a moving articulation of the coercive social forces at play in this story, and the way they can have tragic consequences.

Finally, there is Leo’s 13th birthday party held at the estate, and Marian has said she is visiting family friend Nanny Robson and will arrive a little later, at 6pm.  When it starts raining and the family, seeking to provide Marian with safe transport home, learn that Marian is not to be found at Nanny Robson home, Mrs. Maudsley grabs Leo and says the two of them must go to where she suspects Marian must be.  They rush over to Black Farm and find Marian and Ted making love in one of the stalls.  We are left to mostly imagine what transpires next, but we do see that this untimely exposure did lead to Ted’s suicide.

The concluding scene is an exercise in grim resignation.  It moves the viewer to the flash-forward time-period fifty years later.  Marian meets with Leo and learns that Leo, traumatized by what happened fifty years earlier, has led a dry, shriveled life as a lifelong bachelor.  He could never overcome the feelings of guilt and horror that arose from the events with which he was connected back then when he was on the verge of adolescence.  Marian tells him that her husband, Hugh, and her son had died long ago, but that her young grandson, who physically resembles Ted Burgess, is still alive.  And she tells Leo that she has one last message for him to deliver to her grandson.  Tell  him everything, she says, especially tell him who his real grandfather was and tell him about the joyous love she had shared with that man.

Overall, and despite the two flaws I mentioned earlier, The Go-Between is a brilliant and thought-provoking piece.  It gets better upon repeated viewings.  In fact I would say that the decision on the part of Losey and Pinter to de-emphasize the plot elements associated with those aforementioned flaws, i.e the flash-forwards and Leo’s ritualistic curses, and instead just concentrate on Leo’s anguished existential experiences was the right one.  That’s what we remember about this film. 

In addition, I feel that the camera work and editing are outstanding, and the acting performances across the board are superb.  Special kudos are due to Dominic Guard whose delicate and emotive portrayal of the young Leo Colston is particularly good.  But perhaps the most crucial contribution to the film’s greatness is, as I suggested above, Michel Legrand’s piano-based score.  It establishes and sustains a mood of intense feeling that provides an emotional coloring lying at the heart of this film.  Leo was the go-between but he missed out on the precious and all-too-brief moments of life to which he was only a dimly comprehending vehicle. Legrand’s music and Losey’s direction expressionistically conjure up these feelings in an inimitable way.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Roger Ebert, “The Go-Between”, RogerEbert.com, (1 January 1971).   
  2. Tony Mastroianni, “‘Go-Between’ May Be Classic”, Cleveland Press. (23 December 1971).   
  3. Christopher C. Hudgins, “Harold Pinter’s The Go-Between: The Courage To Be”, Cycnos,  14 (1), (June 2008).   

Joseph Losey

Films of Joseph Losey:

“Last Year at Marienbad” - Alain Resnais (1961)

Alain Resnais’s second feature film, Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad, 1961), was so spectacularly innovative that it became a landmark in the history of cinema [1,2].  There has always been widespread critical discussion not only on the film’s ultimate meaning but even on just what it was about [1,2,3,4].  Nevertheless, the film won the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, and it is ranked in the British Film Institute’s Directors’ poll as one of the “100 Greatest Films of All Time” [5]. 

Resnais was already known as a respected and innovative film director, having made the famous documentary Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard, 1955) and his even more highly acclaimed  feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959).  In fact both Resnais and Last Year at Marienbad’s script-writer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, were considered to be members of the French intellectual avant-garde of the late 1950s.  Resnais was loosely associated with the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) film movement (which included the likes of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol).  And Robbe-Grillet was associated with the Nouvelle Roman (New Novel) movement (which included the likes of Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, Marguerite Duras, Julio Cortázar, and Italo Calvino).  So with such an intellectual pedigree behind Last Year at Marienbad, critics could expect a challenge, and that’s what they got. 

The story of Last Year at Marienbad is concerned with an extended encounter between an unnamed man and woman who are staying at an elaborate Baroque hotel that has been fashioned from some palatial aristocratic estate.  The man tries to convince the woman that they had met the previous year and had fallen in love and that they had agreed to meet again at this hotel in order to run away together.  But the woman politely tells this man that she has no recollection of ever having met him, much less of ever having agreed to meet him again here this year. 

Because of the intimate nature of their extended conversation’s subject matter, the man has to meet the woman at various opportune moments and circumstances when they can talk privately; so their conversation is fragmented.  Complicating the man’s problems further is the fact that the woman he desires appears to already have a romantic partner, who may or may not be her husband.  So in order to discuss things further, I will refer to the three unnamed characters in this story by the names that were used to reference them in the screenplay:
  • “X” (played by Giorgio Albertazzi) is the man seeking to reconnect with the woman he allegedly met last year.
  • “A” (Delphine Seyrig) is the woman sought by X.
  • “M” (Sacha Pitoëff) is the alleged husband of A.
Note that this story, which consists mostly of X’s account of what allegedly happened in the past and which constitutes the bulk of what the film shows us, is anything but straightforward.  Much of it is presented in a dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness manner that suggests that the viewer is privy to the sometimes confused imaginings of the main character.  This interiorized effect is further accentuated by the persistent, almost funereal, organ music (by Francis Seyrig, Delphine Seyrig’s brother) in the background. 

The story begins with long tracking shots down mostly vacant corridors of the Baroque hotel, while a disjointed and repetitive voice-over describes recollections of a mostly suffocating social atmosphere there.  Eventually the camera tracks up to door of a chamber inside of which a theatrical play is being presented to the seated hotel guests.  In the narrative scheme of the remembered events of this story, the performance of this play takes place at the end, when X may be in the act of running away with A.  Anyway, it is referred to early on, and the play the guests are shown watching here, titled Rosmer, is probably a version of Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholmz, a drama about memory and guilt.  But an astute viewer may notice that a placard on the room door advertising Rosmer says it is written by “Niala Sianser”, which is this film’s director’s name spelled backwards.  Such is the malleability of objective reality in this tale.

Afterwards, the hotel guests are shown in the lounge standing in clusters and seemingly chatting, but they are in almost (but not quite) frozen in static positions, as if these are images from X’s memory.  Gradually we move to scenes showing X with A, first dancing with her in a hotel lounge and later talking with her somewhere apart from others.  He is trying to convince her that they met here last year – or perhaps, he says, they met at Frederiksbad, Karlstadt, Marienbad, or Baden-Salsa.  So it is clear that his own memory is not perfect.  In any case, he insists, the two of them fell in love back then, but A had told him to wait for a year before they would be free to run away together.  But A demurely continues to insist that she doesn’t remember X at all.

The rest of the film continues along the lines of this extended conversation, with some interspersed scenes showing occasional interactions with M, who is A’s presumed partner.  M is an austere, somewhat forbidding character who contrasts markedly with X.  While X represents romantic exceptionalism, M represents uncompromising, rule-following rigidity.  M likes to engage in target-practice shooting games with his gun and in the stick-drawing table game of nim, at which he never loses.

Note that as the film proceeds, the viewer may begin to have questions concerning the reality of what he or she is seeing:
  • Is the story of what X claims happened between himself and A one year ago a figment of his imagination?
     
  • Is what is happening “now” also a figment of X’s imagination?
There is conflicting evidence in this regard.  X and A are sometimes shown conversing on the patio outside the hotel next to a statue of mythical figures.  But the background garden seen behind this statue is markedly different for different scenes of this conversation.  And although the focalization of the film is mostly on X, there are a few sometimes contradictory shots and scenes shown at which X was not present.  In one bedroom scene, the otherwise dour and taciturn M professes his love for A.  And there is also even one shot in which M is shown shooting and killing A.  So how “real” is what is being presented in those shots?

At the end of the film, supposedly during the performance of the play Rosmer, X and A meet at an appointed time and place in the hotel and apparently depart together, at last.  Or do they?  It’s not clear. 

Given these ambiguities, there have been various critical interpretations of Last Year at Marienbad.  And these different opinions may be associated with questions concerning who was the real author of Marienbad, Robbe–Grillet or Resnais?  Robbe-Grillet originally submitted a detailed shooting script and storyboard for the film.  But he was not present for the shooting of the film, and Resnais introduced some changes, including the use of the interiorizing organ music.  In any case these two creators probably had some conflicting perspectives [6].
“According to Resnais, Robbe-Grillet used to insist that it was he who wrote Marienbad, without question, and that Resnais's filming of it was a betrayal—but that since he found it very beautiful he did not blame him for it.” [1]   
So there have been a number of planes of interpretation.  Here are a few.

Memory and Narrative
It is true that most all of our memories are narrative constructions.  And these involve a selection of supposedly factual details that fit into the narratives we construct.  So the film can be considered to be a creative exploration of this aspect of “reality” [3].
“Resnais’ film may be a study in the workings of memory, but not necessarily memory as guarantor of history and truth. Marienbad may also be about memory as power, false memory masquerading as history.”
Socio-political
Since Resnais’s earlier films featured an emphasis on mass social empathy, it would likely cause some critics to look in this direction.  So some people view the film as showing a decadent pre-War European culture (represented by M) that was oblivious of the social issues that were threatening it.  The whole film is then seen as a parody of such escapism [3,7].

Romanticism vs. Classicism
To some extent X represents Romanticism and M represents Classicism.  This contrast is sometimes discussed in the context of comparisons between English Gardens (Romanticism ) and French Gardens (Classicism).  And the Baroque hotel’s surrounding French Gardens offer a visual reminder of this contrast.

Male vs. Female  
To some extent A may represent an embodiment of the eternal female mystery to X [3].  It is interesting that the female character, A, is said to have been the product of Resnais, while the two male characters, X and M, are said to have been products or Robbe-Grillet [8].

But then there are also some critics who just love to be immersed in the mesmerizing narrative flow of Last Year at Marienbad, without giving analytical thought to the film’s ultimate meaning [2,9,10,11,12].  Even Robbe-Grillet, himself, observed in the introduction to the published screenplay of the film [1]:
"(E)ither the spectator will try to reconstitute some 'Cartesian' scheme — the most linear, the most rational he can devise — and this spectator will certainly find the film difficult if not incomprehensible; or else the spectator will let himself be carried along by the extraordinary images in front of him…and to this spectator, the film will seem the easiest he has ever seen: a film addressed exclusively to his sensibility, to his faculties of sight, hearing, feeling."
And similarly, critic Roger Ebert remarked [2]:
"Viewing the film again, I expected to have a cerebral experience, to see a film more fun to talk about than to watch. What I was not prepared for was the voluptuous quality of 'Marienbad', its command of tone and mood, its hypnotic way of drawing us into its puzzle, its austere visual beauty. Yes, it involves a story that remains a mystery, even to the characters themselves. But one would not want to know the answer to this mystery. Storybooks with happy endings are for children. Adults know that stories keep on unfolding, repeating, turning back on themselves, on and on until that end that no story can evade.”
And that is more or less the way that I look at Last Year at Marienbad, too.  It is truly a hypnotic cinematic dream.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. “Last Year at Marienbad”, Wikipedia, (10 May 2020).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “Last Year at Marienbad”, RogerEbert.com, (30 May 1999).   
  3. Darragh O’Donoghue, “L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad)”. Senses of Cinema, (October 2004).   
  4. Jonas Mekas, “Movie Journal”, The Village Voice, (15 March 1962).   
  5. “Directors’ top 100", Sight & Sound, British Film Institute”, (2012).  
  6. Mark Polizzotti, “Last Year at Marienbad: Which Year at Where?”, The Criterion Collection, (22 June 2009).   
  7. Richard Brody, “DVD of the Week: Last Year at Marienbad”, The New Yorker, (19 March 2011).   
  8. Luc Lagier, Dans le Labyrinthe de Marienbad, (In the Labyrinthe of Marienbad), [film], (2008).
  9. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Last Year at Marienbad”, Chicago Reader, (n.d.).   
  10. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Greatest Film Ever Made?”, Chicago Reader, (1 May 2008).   
  11. Edward Copeland, “No explanations for the inexplicable  Why do we feel the need to force meaning upon magic?”, Edward Copeland's Tangents, (7 March 2012).  
  12. Edward Copeland, “What's so funny about critics, taste and Marienbad?”, Edward Copeland's Tangents, (11 March 2012).   

“Nayakan” - Mani Ratnam (1987)

Nayakan (aka Nayagan, 1987) is an immensely popular South Indian gangster film, which, despite having been filmed in the minority Tamil language, is considered to be one of the most popular Indian films ever made [1,2].  Indeed, TIME magazine even ranked Nayakan on its universal list of "All-Time 100 Best Films" (2005) [3,4].  However, Nayakan is not very well-known in the West, and, unfortunately for those seeking a suitably subtitled version, currently available prints of the film are not of good quality [5,6]. 

For the Indian masses who have seen the film, Nayakan probably stands as the Indian version of The Godfather (1972) [6,7].  However, I would say the film could perhaps just as well be likened to some of Martin Scorsese’s gangster epics, such as Casino (1995) or The Irishman (2019).  In any case, what we essentially have here in Nayakan is the life story of a notorious Indian mafia don’s rise to power and subsequent struggles.  The film was written and directed by Mani Ratnam, but it is loosely based on the real life of notorious Bombay gangster Varadarajan Mudaliar.

However, Nayakan’s immense popularity must be due to more than just being an account of a notorious gangster.  It must have special virtues with regard to its narrative themes and/or production values.  With regard to narrative themes and in comparison to earlier gangster films, one might ask whether the key underlying theme in this film is about:
  • the intricate machinations of mob life;
  • a charismatic leader who overcame all odds and inspired his followers;
  • the necessity for the rule of law;
  • morality.
With respect to the first two of those narrative themes, I would say, no, they are not covered.  The machinations of gangster rule are assumed, but they are left in the background.  And though some people might disagree with me on the second point, I would say that the main character in the film seems remarkably laidback and oftentimes passive.  Note that the main character, Sakthivel "Velu" Naicker, is played by popular Tamil actor Kamal Haasan, who also starred in the Indian silent movie Pushpak (1987).  Although many people seem to like Haasan, to me, he is far from charismatic. 

As for the value of the rule of law, there is indeed a key argument about that topic relatively late in the piece, but that does not seem to be a pervasive issue, especially given how corrupt the police are in this film.  That leaves us with the final thematic possibility, that of morality.  But morality only comes into play in this film if you accept the dubious claim that revenge is a moral action.  Indeed much of the action in the film is driven by revenge, so much so in fact that we can say that Nayakan is permeated with revenge, and we can regard it as essentially a revenge film.  To highlight this observation, I will identify vengeance-fuelled elements by “[R]” in the discussion below about the film’s story.

Moreover, Nayakan’s production values are something of a mixed bag.  The cinematography by P. C. Sreeram is expressionistically emphatic all the way.  There are many hand-held moving-camera shots that convey a disruptive, uncertain feeling to what is happening.  These are intermixed with lots of lots of closeups, overhead shots, and high- and low-angle shots, many of them in relative darkness, that further empathize the dramatic tenor.  I particularly liked the several extended scenes, including dance numbers, that were shot in a driving rainstorm.  Overall, the cinematography is provocative but effective. 

The film’s editing by B. Lenin and V. T. Vijayan, though, is not so successful.  There are some pointless axis-crossing cuts, and the narrative flow is disjointed.  When I watched the film, I felt like I was looking at a scrapbook.  And the film’s music by Ilaiyaraaja is disappointing, too [6].  The jazzy soundtrack doesn’t go with the images presented and is constantly distracting.

The story of Nayakan is told over four parts.  Note that a key narrative element throughout this tale is that the police are routinely malicious killers and torturers of poor people and almost represent a force of evil.

1.  The Rise of Velu
At the outset, Sakthivel Naicker, who looks to be about ten-years-old, is beaten by police in search of his father, who is an opposition union leader.  After the police find and kill his father [R], Sakthivel stabs the police inspector [R], after which the young boy runs off to Bombay (Mumbai). These are the first of many acts of revenge  depicted in the film.  In Bombay’s Dharavi slums, Sakthivel finds refuge with a kind-hearted smuggler, Hussain, who becomes his surrogate father. 

Years later, the now-grownup Sakthivel (now played by Kamal Haasan) watches the police maliciously hose-down poor people in his neighbourhood, and when he doesn’t run away, he is taken in and tortured by the police [R].

On another occasion, Sakthivel asks his step-father if smuggling isn’t morally wrong.  Hussain responds that “nothing is bad if it helps others”, and he implies that his smuggling helps poor people.  This becomes Sakthivel’s catch-phrase, and he adopts a Robin-Hood-like policy of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.  And so as things develop, Sakthivel becomes an aggressive partner to Hussain’s smuggling activities.  During this time Sakthivel’s friend Selva (Janagaraj) takes him to a whorehouse.  There he is attracted to a teenage schoolgirl, Neela (Saranya Ponvannan), who is working there temporarily as a prostitute. 

Soon, though, other smugglers become jealous of Sakthivel’s aggressive actions, and they arrange for corrupt police inspector Kelkar (Pradeep Shakthi) to arrest Sakthivel’s step-father and have him killed in jail [R] so that it looks like a suicide.  When Sakthivel hears of this, he murders Kelkar in a lengthy and violent three-minute fistfight [R].  The poor Tamilians who saw this battle support Sakthivel and subsequently refuse to testify against him.  They regard him as a hero and now call him “Velu”. 

Afterwards, Velu goes to Kelkar’s home and decides to take care of the support for the man’s family, which consists of his wife and a young mentally retarded son Ajit.  Even Kelkar's widow doesn’t blame Velu, because she knew that her husband's immorality resulted in his death.

Later a new landowner comes to tear down a Dharavi slum in order to construct a new building, and he orders the eviction of the slum tenants.  So Velu leads a group armed with clubs to destroy landowner’s wealthy house in another lengthy violent scene [R].

Eventually Velu marries Neela, and the film features some intimate bedroom scenes (which I found a little surprising for a mass-market Indian film).

2.   The Emergence of a Don
Years have passed, and Velu and Neela now have two pre-teen children, a son Surya and a daughter Charumati. 

Velu now goes to meet the top gangsters in town, which include the Reddy brothers, and he tells them that if he can pull off big heist in the harbor (which the Reddys have failed at), then the harbor should “belong” to him.  There is then a lengthy scene, featuring music and dancing, showing the successful heist.  In response to this, the Reddys vow to kill Velu and his family [R].  Later there is a violent hit job that results in Neela’s death [R], and in response Velu kills the Reddys [R].

3.  A Reckoning
Years have passed, and Velu is now a greying, admired don.  Surya (Nizhalgal Ravi) and Charumati (Karthika) are now young adults, and somewhat  to Velu’s discomfort, Surya shows interest in emulating his father’s gangster ways.   However, soon a policeman comes to Velu seeking justice, i.e. revenge [R].  His daughter was sexually molested by an upperclass boy who is above the law, and the policeman wants the boy to be punished.  Velu sends Selva out to torture the boy [R], and Charumati happens to see it.  So she confronts Velu in what amounts to the most interesting exchange in the film.

Charumati asks Velu, who are you to play God?  But Velu merely answers that the authorities can’t be trusted to deliver correct punishment [R].  Later the same policeman comes to report to Velu that one of Velu’s own men is ready to testify against Velu concerning the torture incident.  Surya vows that he will “take care of him”, but in the event, Surya is killed in an accidental explosion. Afterwards, Charumati accuses her father of being responsible for the deaths of both her mother and her brother, and she renounces him and leaves home for good.

4.  Closing Down
Years later, a new assistant police commissioner, Patil (M. Nassar), is appointed, and he vows to put an end to the gangster activity in Mumbai.  He preemptively confiscates the private ambulances that Velu had been using to service the neglected Dharavi slums [R], and he jails Selva.  Velu goes to Patil’s home to see if he can talk to him, but when he arrives while Patil is out, he is shocked to discover that Patil’s wife is his daughter Charumati.  She explains to her father that she married the police officer in order to atone for her sins (of having been a member of Velu’s family).

Patil soon secures an arrest warrant for Velu, and he proceeds to carry out a ruthlessly brutal campaign in search of his target.  But the people of Dharavi are loyal to Velu, whom they regard as a hero, and they refuse to disclose his whereabouts.  During these police investigations, however, the now-adult, and still mentally retarded, Ajit Kelkar learns finally that Velu was responsible for his father’s death years ago. 

Seeing the poor people of Dharavi's undeserved suffering from the relentless police brutality, Velu surrenders himself to Patil.  Patil, however, is awed by how much the people support Velu, and fearful of a violenet civil backlash, he comes to Velu’s cell begging him to mollify his angry supporters.  It as if there are two equally contending groups seeking civil authority here – the police and the mob headed by Velu – and Patil is finally reaching out for some sort of peace treaty.  Velu agrees to try to calm the people down.

Just before entering the trial chamber, Velu meets for the first time his grandson, the son of Charumati.  The boy asks Velu if he is a good person or a bad person, and after reflection, Velu says, “I don’t know”.

Then the trial takes place, and because none of the citizens will testify against Velu, he is acquitted of the charges against him.  The people outside the courtroom are jubilant when they hear the verdict.  However, when Velu comes outside to join them, he is murdered by Ajit in revenge for his father’s death [R].

So is there a moral to this story of Nayakan?  If there is, I didn’t see it.  All we are shown in this sombre tale are two equally malicious forces – the mobster gang and the police – each perpetually driven by unprincipled revenge.  There could be no satisfying outcome under these circumstances.  The two leaders of these forces – Velu and (symbolically) Patil – are far from inspiring, whether looked at from a narrative, moral, or dramatic perspective.  As I mentioned above, Kamal Haasan’s relentlessly blank and deadpanned countenance in the role of Velu leaves a dramatic hole in this story that is never filled.

Far more satisfying is the film’s atmospheric cinematography, with its many darkened and heavy-rain-filled scenes.  They transport the viewer into a grim, revenge-fuelled wold from which there is no seeming escape.
★★★
 
Notes:
  1. “Nayakan”, Wikipedia, (3 May 2020).   
  2. “Critical reception”, "Nayakan", Wikipedia, (2 May 2020).    
  3. “All-TIME 100 Movies”, TIME, (12 February 2005).    
  4. Richard Corliss, “Nayakan”, TIME, (14 January 2010).   
  5. Heather Wilson, “Nayakan (1987)”, Cinema Chaat, (27 October 2013).   
  6. James Berardinelli, “Nayagan (India, 1987)”, REELVIEWS, (24 August 2019).   
  7. Kumuthan Maderya,. "Slumgod Millionaire: On 'Nayakan', the Godfather of Indian Gangster Films", PopMatters, (3 November 2017).