“PK” - Rajkumar Hirani (2014)

Rajkumar Hirani’s PK (2014) is a comedic sci-fi fantasy that offers a light-hearted comparative look at religious practices and dogmas in India.  Given India’s many staunchly-held religious sects, this is a somewhat risky subject area for an Indian filmmaker to enter into, but Hirani managed successfully to fashion a film that poked some fun, yet still avoided much controversy.  The film was favourably received by most critics, both in India and internationally [1,2,3,4], and it was a hit at the box office.  In fact when it was released, PK emerged as the highest-grossing Indian film of all time, and it still ranks as one of India’s highest grossing films ever [5].

Rajkumar Hirani, who directed, edited, and co-produced this film, also teamed up with Abhijat Joshi to write the script for PK.  Joshi and Hirani had earlier co-scripted Hirani’s previous film, 3 Idiots (2009), which had also taken a satirical look at a social issue, on that occasion concerning educational practice, and which was also a big hit.

Another common feature of PK and 3 Idiots was the appearance of popular lead actor Aamir Khan, who here plays the title role.  Khan has appeared in a number of films that display his dancing ability, but here in PK he is also given a chance to show off his well-sculpted physique.

The story of PK concerns an alien astronaut (played by Aamir Khan) from a far-off planet who is stranded on Earth because he has lost his means of returning to his spaceship.  Although he looks like a human being (apart from his bug-eyed countenance and protruding ears), he knows nothing about human practices and culture.  In particular, he doesn’t know how to talk – on his planet they communicate by direct mental transmission of thoughts when they hold each others’ hands.  And also on his planet the people there don’t wear any clothing

So at the start of the film, when the alien first drops down from his large spaceship in an open area somewhere in Rajasthan, he is naked, except for a bejewelled ornamental medallion around his neck.  This supposed medallion is actually a vital remote communication device that the alien needs to communicate with his spaceship, but it is quickly stolen by the first human that the alien encounters.  So immediately the alien is alone and stranded on this new planet.  As the alien encounters other humans, his odd (to them) behaviour causes them to assume that he is drunk, and so they start calling him “PK”, which when pronounced phonetically signifies the Hindi word for ‘tipsy’.

Very quickly and without explanation, though, the film shifts to a flashback in Belgium involving  ordinary humans.  There two Indian students, Jagat "Jaggu" Janani Sahni (played by the beautiful Anushka Sharma) and Sarfaraz (Sushant Singh Rajput), meet and fall in love.  But Jaggu is an Indian Hindu and Sarfaraz is a Pakistani Muslim, so when Jaggu’s tradition-bound father learns about their affair, he is alarmed. After consulting self-satisfied Indian god-man Tapasvi Maharaj (Saurabh Shukla), who claims to divine that Sarfaraz will betray Jaggu, her father expresses his opposition to their proposed immediate marriage.  But Jaggu and Sarfaraz go ahead with their plans anyway.  However at the actual marriage registration event, Jaggu is stood-up and left broken-hearted.  She returns to India alone and starts working as a TV reporter.

So now we move back to the “present time” and have two main narrative threads in the film: PK’s story and Jaggu’s story.  These are quickly linked up when the enterprising TV reporter Jaggu, looking for an interesting story for her show, hears about PK, who by this time is a clothed, but weird, vagrant.  He is now able to talk like a human and is wandering the streets in futile search of his missing remote device.  Noone believes PK is an alien astronaut; they just assume he is tipsy.  But Jaggu finds his weirdness likely of interest to her TV audience.  Eventually she tracks PK down and manages to interview him while he is briefly locked up in a jail cell, where PK gives her his account, dramatized in flashback, of things that have happened to him since his arrival on Earth. 

One of the interesting things that PK tells her is how he learned to talk.  Initially the mute PK was trying to hold onto the hands of people he met, hoping by this means to communicate with them in his fashion, but this was always met with hostility, particularly when he tried this with women.  Eventually, though, he is befriended by a bandmaster, Bhairon Singh (Sanjay Dutt), who feels guilty after having accidentally run into PK with his truck.  Singh tries to make PK happy and finally takes him to a brothel, hoping that will loosen him up.  But PK spent the whole night just holding onto a prostitute’s hands, and by doing so, he was able to “download” everything in her mind.  The next morning he could talk, and he suddenly knew lots about human life and culture.  Then he was able to accelerate his quest to find out how to get home.

This is the point in the film when things start to get interesting.  When PK queried people he would meet on the street, many of them told him that only God could help him.  But who was God and how could He be reached?  As PK investigated this matter further, he discovered there were a number of different stories about who this mysterious God was, and these stories were detailed by certain “managers” (i.e. clerics) who each asserted that they had privileged access to the truth.  PK sincerely tries to practice a number of these religions – including Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Islam, and Christianity – but he only gets confusion and nowhere to his ultimate goal.

After telling this tail about his experiences to Jaggu, PK eventually convinces her that he really is an alien and that he is telling the truth.  So she vows to help him find his remote device so that he can return to his home planet. 

At this time also, PK learns that when humans dial telephones, they sometimes get the wrong number.  And so he conjectures that the various god-men that he has encountered or heard about have been trying to connect to God, but they have just gotten the “wrong number” – they haven’t connected with the real God.  When Jaggu hears PK offer his “wrong number” theory about the god-men, she gets excited that the idea will click with the public, and so she conveys the notion to her TV audience.  The public’s enthusiasm about PK’s wrong-number notion upsets god-man Tapasvi Maharaj, and this eventually leads Jaggu to arrange for a TV debate between Tapasvi Maharaj and PK about the validity of the latter’s wrong-number idea. 

The ensuing TV debate is a dramatic highlight of the film, because it offers a succinct comedic showcase and summation  of the questions about religious dogma that have been presented in the film.  In the debate, PK has the opportunity to contrast the difference between the admittedly unknowable God that created us all with the artificial and limited “god” that the dishonest Tapasvi Maharaj had concocted (as well as with the similar artificial “gods” that other god-men hucksters have invented). 

Of course there are some other dramatic aspects of this story that I haven’t mentioned and that you can discover.  For example, the clever but innocent PK falls madly in love with Jaggu.  In addition Jaggu’s earlier beloved, Sarfaraz, reappears on the scene, and his alleged matrimonial betrayal is reconsidered.  So there are still some questions that have to be answered.  For example:
  • Who does Jaggu wind up with?
  • Will PK retrieve his remote device?
  • Will PK remain on Earth or return to his native planet?
See the movie, and find out the answers to these questions for yourself. 

From an overall perspective, we can identify several virtues of the film PK.  For example, the musical numbers are entertaining, and the dancing is well done – particularly the energetic dancing on the part of Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma.  And the acting performances are generally okay.  I was particularly charmed by Anushka Sharma’s engaging screen persona.  But there were also some elements of the film didn’t quite add up for me. 

One issue that I had with the film concerned basic realism.  Of course we know that in a sci-fi-tinged fantasy, there are going to be some inevitable compromises with realism.  But still there were some unrealistic elements that stood out for me.  One of them concerned the aliens’ ability to vocalize.  PK says that they don’t know how to talk on his alien planet; they communicate there by hand-holding. And yet we soon see that they have evolved to have vocal chords like we humans.  It seems odd that they would never have naturally evolved the ability to speak vocally on their planet.  (Later, PK downloads human knowledge from the prostitute and can then speak like us.) 

Another minor quibble I have that screenwriter Hirani could have easily avoided is when PK says his planet is four billion miles away from Earth.  But the nearest star to our sun (and hence the nearest candidate solar system that could have life forms) is about 25 trillion miles away.     

And although Aamir Khan puts a lot of energy into his role as PK, I found his performance to be too goofy for me to empathize with.  His clown-like, bug-eyed mugging was too much of a distraction on this occasion.

On the whole, though, this film PK does successfully manage to take a light-hearted look at a potentially volatile social phenomenon – religious hypocrisy.  This is something that infects all religions to varying degrees.  And it can occur when presumed managers or authorities of the religion mistakenly assert that they have direct contact with their god and are authorized to proclaim his teachings, when in fact they may have, to put it in PK’s terms, just "dialled the wrong number”.  As PK suggests, the mysteries behind our being and world of experience are probably deeper and more profound than many of these doctrines would suggest.  Our best advice for this time of world crisis may be simply to spread our love as far as possible – even to those beings, alien or otherwise, we may encounter in the future.
★★

Notes:
  1. Rachel Saltz, “Appealing to God, a Disoriented Space Alien Hopes There’s Help Out There”, The New York Times, (19 December 2014).   
  2. Martin Tsai, “Review:  Bollywood musical ‘PK’ a radical film in extraterrestrial guise”, Los Angeles Times, (21 December 2014).   
  3. Edmund Lee, “Film review: Bollywood’s PK sees alien search for remote control and god”, South China Morning Post, (2 September 2015).   
  4. Meeta, “PK”, WithOut Giving the Movie Away, (n.d.).   
  5. “List of highest-grossing films in India”, Wikipedia, (18 March 2020).   

“Roma” - Alfonso Cuarón (2018)

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018) is a film that, given its stylistics, I wouldn’t have expected to be to my tastes.  After all, it’s a slow-moving tale with many long takes and without a clear-cut narrative direction over the course of much of the film.  And the fact that the film was shot in black-and-white would seem to further distance the goings-on from the viewer.  Nevertheless, I found the film to be a rich and rewarding viewing experience, and I strongly recommend it to you.

Alfonso Cuarón, a well-known filmmaker with a range of styles, is perhaps best known for his dystopian sci-fi thriller Children of Men (2006).  But Roma appears to represent something of a departure from his past dramatic work, in that it seems more personal and reflective.  Certainly its creation was personal – Cuarón was the writer, director, cinematographer, co-editor, and co-producer of this film.  Moreover, the  story of the film is set in 1970-71 in a neighborhood of Mexico City and in a family setting that corresponds closely to Cuarón’s own childhood family environment. 

Note also that as far as stylistics are concerned, the film’s title, Roma, which here refers to the affluent Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, has suggested to some reviewers a sly reference to Italian neorealism of the 1950s and 60s [1].  However, I would not place too much emphasis on that association, other than as an offhand homage to Federico Fellini.

Anyway, the film was very well received by critics [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8], and it won numerous awards [9].  In particular, Roma received 10 nominations for the 91st U.S. Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and it was chosen by Time magazine and the New York Film Critics Circle as the best film of 2018.

The story of Roma revolves around the experiences of a young woman, Cleodegaria "Cleo" Gutiérrez, who is an indigenous [10] live-in maid for a professional family living in the upper-middle-class Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City.  The focalization of the film is exclusively maintained on Cleo, the part for which is wonderfully played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio; but much of what is going on in the film are things that happen around and to Cleo, rather than events generated by Cleo, herself.  In this sense Cleo is more of a witness to the world around her than an active causal agent; but thanks to Yalitza Aparicio’s sensitive performance, the viewer can empathize with all the subtle feelings she has over the course of the story.  Thus by this means of a largely passive protagonist, as in many famous cinematic and literary works (think, for example, of those of Franz Kafka), the viewer has access to the larger social themes of the story [11].

These major themes, which are essentially interrelated, are:
  • Womanhood and Motherhood  – what it means in terms of expectations, obligations, and fulfillment.
     
  • Manhood – particularly in connection with the obsessive emphasis on masculinity in Latin American culture.
     
  • Love – what love entails in all its forms, not just romantic love.
     
  • Life and Death – how one faces the ultimate issues of existence.
Given the fundamental nature of these themes, we can say then that Roma is an existentialist film [12].  Note that I am in agreement with philosopher Shawn Loht that for a film to be considered to be philosophical, it need not explicitly articulate a philosophical thesis; it can simply present its philosophical themes in the form of a phenomenological experience for the viewing audience [13].  And it is this existentialist nature of Roma that elevates it to an exalted status.

The rather meandering plot of Roma revolves around Cleo and the household in which she works.  These people are
  • Sofía (played by Marina de Tavira), the mother of the family
  • Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), Sofía's often absent husband and the family’s father
  • The four young children:
    • Toño (Diego Cortina Autrey)
    • Paco (Carlos Peralta)
    • Sofi (Daniela Demesa)
    • Pepe (Marco Graf)
  • Teresa (Verónica García), Sofía's mother
  • Adela (Nancy García), another indigenous live-in maid of the family and Cleo's close friend
A key feature of this story’s telling is Alfonso Cuarón’s artful and contemplative cinematography.  This was Cuarón’s first outing as a solo cinematographer, but he reveals himself here to be a master.  There are many long, carefully-staged panning and tracking shots, some lasting more than five minutes, that reveal the atmospheric milieu in which Cleo lives.  To some viewers these shots may have suggested to them the documentary-like flavor of Italian neorealism, but Cuarón’s shots are far from that kind of offhand spontaneity.  Instead, they are so carefully framed and executed that they evoke a moody, almost haunting, feeling on the part of the invisible witness viewing (via the camera) what transpires in the film.

An example of this is the opening shot, which lasts 5½ minutes and shows Cleo dutifully mopping the enclosed driveway of the household.  Then various mundane household activities are shown that gradually introduce the family members and Adela to the viewer.  Father Antonio is shown briefly, but then soon leaves to go on a research trip to Quebec.  Because mother Sofia works as a science teacher, Cleo must spend a considerable amount of time looking after the children.  And although the children are often naughty, it is clear that they all love Cleo, and she loves them.

Adela and Cleo are close friends, and they often converse with each other in their native Mixtec language.  One day Adela arranges a double-date by having her boyfriend Ramon bring along his relative Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) to be with Cleo.  Fermin, a cocky young he-man obsessed with his martial-arts practice, soon maneuvers Cleo into sleeping with him, and they begin an affair.  A couple of months later, however, Cleo suspects she is pregnant, and when she  informs him of this when they are making out in the back of a movie theater, he quickly excuses himself to go to the bathroom and immediately disappears from her life.  Like so many young women in her position, Cleo is going to have to face this problem alone, without any support from her male partner. 

When with great hesitation Cleo informs her mistress Sofia about her condition, she expects to be fired.  But Sofia responds with great sympathy and tells her she will support her through this crisis.  This encounter is shown with great sensitivity in a moving 5-minute shot.  The viewer will soon learn that Sofia is, herself, dealing with her own problems with men who disappear from their responsibilities.  Her husband Antonio is pretending to be away in Quebec but is actually back somewhere in Mexico City and having an affair with another woman.

As Cleo’s pregnancy proceeds, there are various other dramatic activities depicted, including a family visit to a friend’s countryside hacienda, which happens to occur when a massive forest fire breaks out and everyone frantically works together to try and curtail it.  There is also a time when Cleo was able to track down Fermin at his martial arts class.  When she approaches Fermin, he dismisses her as a mere servant, and he threatens her with life-threatening violence if she claims he has any legal responsibilities in connection with her condition.  Sofia, by the way, is suffering with her own problems, too, and at one point, in a half-inebriated state, she moans to Cleo that “we women are always alone”.

Finally, with Cleo’s due date approaching, Teresa takes Cleo to a store in town to look at a baby crib to buy.   But just at this time the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre (10 June 1971) erupts on the streets [14], and in this connection Cuarón shows graphic glimpses of the violent slaughter that ensued, including a brief encounter in the store that indicates that a gun-wielding Fermin is one of the participants.

In the midst of this chaos, Cleo’s water breaks, and she has to be somehow rushed through the now chaotic, traffic-congested streets to the hospital emergency room.  This is one of the most dramatic sequences in the film, and it culminates with a tension-filled 4½–minute shot showing Cleo on the operating table and having to painfully suffer through the delivery of her stillborn daughter.

Shortly thereafter and with the divorce of Sofia and Antonio also concluded, Sofia decides to take the family and Cleo out to the beaches of Tuxpan so that they can get away from it all for awhile.  However, here another crisis arises when two of the children defy their temporarily-away mother’s instructions and wander out too far into the ocean, where they get caught in the undertow.  Even though she doesn’t know how to swim, Cleo desperately rushes out into the water and just manages to save the two children from drowning.  This is shown in an astonishing 5½-minute shot (you will wonder how they managed to stage and rehearse this shot).  This mesmerizing sequence provides a moving and memorable slant on the film’s theme of life and death.

At the end of the film, Cleo and the family return to the home in Colonia Roma and ready to resume their lives, but also ready to face whatever new challenges life may offer to them.

So over the course of this film, we get a glimpse, through the sensitive eyes of the housemaid Cleo, of some of the fundamental issues that women face today.  The context here in Roma is Mexico, but this story vividly covers problematic themes that women face the world over – sexism, racism, class prejudice, and the inevitability of death.  But it also conveys, thanks to Alfonso Cuarón’s profoundly context-sensitive cinematography, the overriding positive theme that underlies womanhood at its most fundamental level – love.
★★★★
Notes:
  1. Nick Pinkerton, “Film of the week: Roma reframes Alfonso Cuáron’s boyhood through the eyes of his family’s maid”, Sight & Sound, (28 December 2018).   
  2. Peter Bradshaw, “Roma review – an epic of tearjerking magnificence”, The Guardian, (29 November 2018).   
  3. Beth Webb, “Roma first look: the film of Alfonso Cuarón’s career”, Sight & Sound, (5 October 2018).   
  4. Manohla Dargis, “‘Roma’ Review: Alfonso Cuarón’s Masterpiece of Memory”, The New York Times, (20 November 2018).   
  5. Josh Kupecki, “Roma”, The Austin Chronicle, (7 December 2018).   
  6. Brian Tallerico, “Roma”, RogerEbert.Com, (21 November 2018).     
  7. Glenn Kenny, “Venice Film Festival 2018: The Mountain, Roma”, RogerEbert.Com, (30 August 2018).    
  8. Tanmay Shukla, “'Roma' Review: Alfonso’s Cuarón’s masterpiece is a cinematic achievement”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (October 2018).    
  9. “List of accolades received by Roma”, Wikipedia, (6 January 2020).   
  10. Note that indigenous people make up more than 20% of the Mexican population, but they generally have a considerably lower economic status.
  11. Jessi Jezewska Stevens, “The Hidden Power of the Passive Protagonist”, Literary Hub, (5 March 2020).   
  12. The Film Sufi, “Existentialism in Film 1", The Film Sufi, (15 July 2008).   
  13. Shawn Loht, “Phenomenological Preconditions of the Concept of Film-as-Philosophy”, Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology, vol. 2, (2015).  
  14. “El Halconazo”, Wikipedia, (15 February 2020).  

Alfonso Cuarón

Films of Alfonso Cuarón:
  • Roma - Alfonso Cuarón (2018)

“3 Idiots” - Rajkumar Hirani (2009)

3 Idiots (2009) is an immensely popular college comedy-drama that was very well received by the critical community [1,2,3,4,5,6] and has won numerous awards both in India and abroad [7].  Directed by Rajkumar Hirani and scripted by Hirani, Abhijat Joshi, and Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the story of the film is loosely based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel Five Point Someone (2004).  In addition, 3 Idiots features a compelling performance by popular lead actor Aamir Khan in the lead role.  The story of 3 Idiots concerns what happens to three students who meet and become friends after being initially assigned to room together as students at the prestigious Imperial College of Engineering in Delhi (ICE). 

Although the film spends much of its time wallowing in the throes of sometimes vulgar screwball comedy, there is also some narrative width to the plot, and this may expand the film’s appeal for some viewers.  In particular, there is a thoughtful thematic element concerning how best to educate students and the current deficiencies of educational systems in general.  These educational system deficiencies, I should add, are not only present in India, but are characteristic of educational systems at all levels all over the world.

The three students who meet at ICE, i.e. the “3 Idiots”, have all been sent there by their hopefully ambitious parents to study engineering. They are:
  • Ranchoddas "Rancho" Shamaldas Chanchad (played by Aamir Khan).  This personage will be identified with two other characters in the story, and this mistaken-identity element will add a fascinating twist to the narrative.
           
  • Farhan Qureshi (played by Madhavan)
     
  • Raju Rastogi (Sharman Joshi)
In addition to those 3 Idiots, there are three other characters who have prominent roles in the story:
  • Chatur Ramalinga (Omi Vaidya) is also an engineering student at ICE.  He is very smart, but he is from Tamil-speaking Pondicherry and so is not very conversant in Hindi.
     
  • Dr. Viru Sahastrabuddhe (Boman Irani), called “Virus” by the students, is the strict and domineering director of ICE.
     
  • Pia Sahastrabuddhe (Kareena Kapoor) is Virus's younger daughter and is studying medicine to become a doctor.   She will become the object of Rancho’s romantic interests in the story.
With this mix we can discern five narrative threads that drive what happens in the film.
  1. The Idiots vs. Virus 
    Virus is a doctrinaire college director who lives according to a rigid schedule and seems to want all his students to be submissive robots.  The 3 Idiots, led by Rancho, are, in contrast, rebellious and free-spirited.  So Virus naturally sees them as enemies in need of punishment.
       
  2. Rancho vs. Chatur Rancho and Chatur are natural rivals.  Both are smart, but they embody fundamentally contrasting ways to learn.
     
  3. Rancho and Pia
    Rancho and Pia are, on the surface, an unlikely duo.  But their natural attractiveness and spark, as well as adventitious narrative circumstances, bring them together.
      
  4. Farhan and his family
    Farhan comes from a middle-class family, and his strict father is determined to see to it that his son graduates from ICE with an engineering degree.  But Farhan’s real passion is wildlife photography, which is a far less lucrative profession.
     
  5. Raju and his family
    Raju’s family is desperately impoverished, and their only hope is for Raju to graduate from ICE and get a good job.  The possibility that he might fail in this effort makes the sensitive Raju suicidal at one point.
The film begins in the “present”, ten years after the initial events in this story, when Farhan, Raju, and Chatur meet up at ICE and are looking for Rancho, whom they haven’t seen in years.  They get a clue that Rancho may be in Shimla, up north of Delhi, so they head out on the road to look for him. Then the focus shifts to ten years earlier when Rancho, Farhan, and Raju met as freshmen at ICE.  There they are faced with the demanding academic requirements and social structure that new ICE students must face.

Right away it is clear that Rancho is a creative iconoclast who continually comes up with novel ways to look at things and solve problems.  And, of course, his ways don’t sit well with Virus, which presents numerous comedic opportunities in this part of the film.

At one point the mischievous boys are looking for good food and crash a wedding party, which just happens to be for Virus’s older daughter, Mona Sahastrabuddhe (Mona Singh).  At the party Rancho meets Mona’s pretty younger sister, Pia, who is a medical school intern at a city hospital.  The two of them engage in witty banter, and we can guess that this is not the last time we will see the two of them together.

Later Chatur has to give an honorary speech on a college celebration day, but since he doesn’t know Hindi very well, he needs to memorize the whole text.  Unfortunately for him, his rival Rancho has made a few off-color modifications to the text he has to memorize, which turns the speech into a hilarious expression of ribaldry.  After Chatur’s embarrassing experience he challenges Rancho to meet him ten years later and see which one of them is more successful (and it is this hoped-for meeting that is shown at the start of the film).

Critical medical emergencies occasion some further encounters involving Pia and Rancho, including one saving Raju’s father, who is desperately ill, and one providing emergency assistance for the delivery of sister Mona’s baby.  Each of these desperate occasions combine Pia’s medical know-how and Rancho’s engineering inventiveness to bring about a last-second rescue.  Later, after a fraternal drinking bout, Rancho’s two pals goad their inebriated friend into sneaking into Pia’s bedroom and declaring his love for her. 

Finally, after further madcap adventures, the three idiots manage to graduate, with Rancho placing at the top of the class.  But after the graduation ceremony, Rancho disappears, and Farhan and Raju lose sight of their friend.   This brings us up to the scene shown at the outset of the film when Farhan, Raju, and Chatur went off on a drive to find Rancho.  They pick up Pia along the way, and they do eventually find Rancho.  But there are further issues to be addressed and unravelled, including just who is Rancho – his real identity has been a mystery.  Nevertheless, the film does end on a high comedic note and with all five narrative threads resolved in a satisfactory manner.


There are several dimensions along which we can take a look at 3 Idiots with respect to its overall virtues and vices.  On the production side of things, I liked the music, particularly the songs and the associated elaborate and exuberant choreography of “Aal Izz Well” (“All Is Well”) and “Zoobie Doobie”.  On the other hand, the acting was generally exaggerated and artificial, particularly the over-heated ham-acting performance of Boman Irani in the role of Virus.  The only saving grace on this front was the spirited performance of Aamir Khan as Rancho, which drives the film all the way.

A further detriment to the film, from my perspective anyway, was the relentless recourse to juvenile locker-room humor.  There are frequent references to and depictions of male farting and peeing, with the latter act sometimes used to defile the property of a despised superior.  In addition there are a number of instances of collective mooning – where some boys pull down their pants and expose their backsides to someone to whom they either wish to give an insult or to pay self-deprecating obeisance.  This kind of stuff may be considered to be hilarious by some teenagers, and it may help account for the film’s great popularity, but to me it was just foolish.

However, an offsetting positive element to the film was the delicate way the initially tentative romance between Pia and Rancho was presented and allowed to blossom.  This had a realistic feel to it that helped the viewer buy in to everything else that was going on and so increased overall enjoyment.

The most significant positive aspect of 3 Idiots, though, as I mentioned earlier, was its serious addressing of an important issue in society: how to educate people.  This is a critical concern not only for India, but for the whole world.  In this respect the conventional way to teach people is to get them to learn facts and then see if the  students can remember these facts when they are examined.  This is how ICE, as led by Virus, operated in this story. 

But we must be aware that there are actually two kinds of knowing – knowing what and knowing howKnowing what can be referred to as “knowledge”, and knowing how can be referred to as “skill” [8,9].  Knowledge can be written down in textual form and then memorized.  Skill, on the other hand, can only be learned by doing.  You don’t learn how to ride a bicycle from a textbook; you must get on a bicycle and learn how to do it, yourself. 

Both knowledge and skills are important to learn, but most educational institutions just concentrate on teaching knowledge.  Why?  Because knowledge is so much easier and more economical to teach.  For teaching knowledge, one can have a lecturer stand before a large class of students and present factual knowledge to them all simultaneously.  And, of course, in the Internet age of today, these economies of scale for knowledge teaching have drastically increased.  But to teach a skill, the teacher must often have a one-on-one interaction with the student. 

In addition, it is so much easier to examine students for their knowledge and then rank them precisely.  Measuring and ranking skills, on the other hand, is much more difficult.  So educational institutions the world over have opted to concentrate their focus on teaching knowledge.  But knowing skills – in particular (a) knowing how to work together as a team and (b) knowing how disparate objects and tools may work together to generate a synergistic effect – are crucially important and should not be left out of the educational curriculum.

This knowledge-vs-skills issue is directly addressed in 3 Idiots.  Virus represents the exclusive focus on knowledge, while Rancho represents and embodies the virtues of thinking in a skills-oriented way.  This distinction is well demonstrated on many occasions in the film.  Chatur bases his study on rote learning – he memorizes everything, but he doesn’t have a deep understanding of things.  Rancho, on the other hand, uses his more intuitive engineering know-how and teamwork instincts to help solve many real-world problems in this story.  Chatur gets good grades, but Rancho is the better student and the one we want to emulate.
  
So at the end of the film, we see Rancho (but now with his correct identity, Phunsukh Wangdu) teaching young people, via physical demonstrations and interactions, the way things work.  He is helping them to develop needed skills.  And that is the message we need to take home [8].
★★

Notes:
  1. Shubhra Gupta. “3 Idiots”, Indian Express, (25 December 2009).   
  2. Nikhat Kazmi, “3 Idiots Movie Review”, Times of India, (11 April 2016).  
  3. Gaurav Malani, “3 Idiots: Movie Review”, Times of India, (24 December 2009).   
  4. Lisa Tsering, “3 Idiots -- Film Review”, Hollywood Reporter, (29 December 2009).   
  5. David Chute, “Aamir Khan’s College Comedy, 3 Idiots”, The Village Voice, (9 February 2010).   
  6. Robert Abele, “‘Idiots’ team for jolly mayhem”, Los Angeles Times, (29 January 2010).   
  7. “List of accolades received by 3 Idiots”, Wikipedia, (20 January 2020).   
  8. Martin K. Purvis, Maryam A. Purvis, & Christopher Frantz “CKSW: A Folk-Sociological Meta-Model for Agent-Based Modelling”, Computational Social Science and Social Computer Science: Two Sides of the Same Coin (Social Path 2014), University of Surrey, UK (2014).   
  9. The Film Sufi, “‘Moneyball’ - Bennett Miller (2011)”, The Film Sufi, (8 August 2012).   

Rajkumar Hirani

Films of Rajkumar Hirani:
  • 3 Idiots - Rajkumar Hirani (2009)
  • PK - Rajkumar Hirani (2014)

“Casino” - Martin Scorsese (1995)

Martin Scorsese has won fame for a variety of films, but his signature productions have been his films about mobster life.  In particular we can point to what is now Scorsese’s tetralogy on the mafia, featuring in each case Robert De Niro in a pivotal role – Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Irishman (2019).  All four of those films are dark, but I would say the darkest one is Casino.

Like Goodfellas, Casino was based on a non-fiction book by Nicholas Pileggi, and both of those films were co-scripted by Scorsese and Pileggi.  In the case of Casino, Pileggi’s book was Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, and it was based on the real-life experiences of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Tony Spilotro, two Chicago Syndicate gangsters who moved to Las Vegas to get involved in casino operations there.  But although Scorsese’s film here may have been inspired by facts, the finished product is so laden with such expressionistic colorings that one feels they can only could have come from a dark imagination.

The story of Casino begins with Sam "Ace" Rothstein (played by Robert De Niro) providing his voiceover-assisted account of events in his past that led to a car-bombing attack on his life in the early 1980s.  We are told that in 1973 Ace, a gambling expert for the Chicago Syndicate gangster organization, was sent to Las Vegas to take over the running of the casino in the Tangiers hotel there.  The casino was owned by the corrupt Teamster’s Union, which was allied with the Chicago Syndicate.  The Chicago Syndicate also sent Ace’s boyhood friend, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), to Las Vegas to look after shadier aspects of the mob’s activities.  Ace was just supposed to attend to the casino’s gambling operations, while Nicky was expected to employ his customarily brutal strong-arm actions to enforce the mob’s will. 

When Nicky appears in the story, his account of things is covered in voiceover, too, so the film now has two largely parallel voiceover-driven threads – Ace’s account mostly inside the casino and Nicky’s brutal coercion activities outside.  In both of these threads, reports of mob corruption are presented in brutal detail.  So much of the first two-thirds of this nearly three-hours-long film provides almost an instruction manual in how the mob swindled its customers and the government and in so doing made its fortune in Las Vegas.  In this respect critic Roger Ebert has commented [1]:
“Unlike his other Mafia movies ("Mean Streets" and "GoodFellas"), Scorsese's "Casino" is as concerned with history as with plot and character. The city of Las Vegas is his subject, and he shows how it permitted people like Ace, Ginger [I will come to her next], and Nicky to flourish, and then spit them out, because the Vegas machine is too profitable and powerful to allow anyone to slow its operation.”
So what about the personal narratives of Ace and Nicky?  Well, some of that starts to creep into the story.  Nicky’s relentlessly hot-tempered acts of vengeful violence, which even go beyond what the mob has sanctioned him to do, eventually get him banned from all the casino’s in Vegas.  Meanwhile Ace meets beautiful dancer and hustler Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) and immediately falls madly in love with her.  Although Ginger is not so hot on Ace, Ace has by now built up a fortune from his gambling activities, and he lures her with money and jewels.  Ginger is essentially hedonistic and greedy, and she can’t really resist Ace’s enticements; and so she eventually agrees to marry him.  Although they soon have a child, their marriage begins to fall apart because of Ginger’s self-centeredness and wandering eye.  In particular, Ginger can’t let go of her old boyfriend, Lester Diamond (James Woods), who seems to be nothing but a good-for-nothing lowlife.  Eventually Ace finds out about Ginger’s continued affair with Lester and also discovers that Lester has just swindled Ginger out of $25,000.  So he arranges for Nicky and his thugs to brutally beat up Lester and put him permanently out of the way.  Ginger then sinks into depression and alcoholism.  After some more disputes with Sam, Ginger even starts a sexual affair with Nicky, which after some further machinations eventually leads to their mutual estrangement.

Finally, the FBI begins to get wind of what the viewer has been informed of all along – that the Syndicate’s operation in Las Vegas has been cheating in its business operations and also skimming the casinos’ profits off the top in order to avoid paying taxes.  The FBI begin closing in on the culprits in the late 1970s and discovering more and more details about the illegal operations.  So the mob bosses respond by beginning to kill off any of their underlings whom they fear might make deals with the authorities and squeal on them.  This is what is behind the murderous attacks on both Ace and Nicky late in the story.

In the end what we have is, as Roger Ebert suggested, more of a historical account of the mafia’s pernicious operations in Las Vegas casinos and not so much of a narrative concerning interesting characters.  After all, the principal characters in Casino – Ace Rothstein, Nicky Santoro, and Ginger McKenna – are all greedy and seem to be only interested in money.  Actually, there are some other personality traits associated to varying degrees with these characters, such as egotistical pride, personal dominance, and revenge.  But these are all of the same narcissistic stripe.

So there are no sympathetic characters here to draw the viewer’s interest into a compelling narrative journey [2].  This is not atypical of a Scorsese film, as I remarked in connection with my review of Goodfellas [3]:      
Actually, narrative structure is not one of Scorsese’s strongest points.  He is something of a master in creating a social milieu, often employing improvisational, ensemble acting that captures the spontaneity of a group situation.  But many times the engaging social environment never encompasses any real narrative goals, and the episodic story just seems to tail off at the end of the film, without achieving any closure.
So does that mean that Casino has nothing of interest for the viewer?  I would say that there is something of interest here, and that is due to Scorsese’s compelling, expressionistic cinematography.  What Scorsese, together with cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, have given us is a cinematic depiction of Hell.  The film features an incessant stream of winding tracking shots that endlessly pull the viewer down through disturbing, confined spaces that evoke a vague psychological feeling of entrapment.  These tracking shots are embellished with countless sweeping swish pans that also contribute to the viewer’s sense of disorientation.  In this way the viewer is drawn into a labyrinthine nightmare that was paradoxically created by man for man.  The patrons of the casino, who are suckers drawn into this serpentine inferno, are fecklessly looking for good luck.  But the notions of honesty and fair play are nonexistent there, and there is no chance that good fortune will befall them.  In fact even the vendors in this hell – Ace, Ginger, and Nicky – are unknowingly and hopelessly trapped in it, too. 

So it is Scorsese’s vivid, expressionistic presentation of a nightmarish setting that may ultimately appeal to some viewers of Casino.
★★

Notes:
  1. Roger Ebert, “Casino”, RogerEbert.com, (22 November 1995).    
  2. Marjorie Baumgarten, “Casino”, Austin Chronicle, (22 November 1995).   
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Goodfellas’ - Martin Scorsese”, The Film Sufi, (7 March 2013).   

“The Crying Game” - Neil Jordan (1992)

Those of you familiar with my essays know that I usually like to discuss the narrative structure of a film under review, because that structure, and the way it is expressed in cinematic form, are such significant factors in film aesthetics.  Some people might think that this gives away too much of the story, but I think that knowing how a plot comes out in the end does not normally diminish one’s enjoyment of a good story.  I know how Romeo and Juliet and Citizen Kane come out, but I still enjoy seeing them again.  It is similar to the way I still like listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, even though I have heard it many times.  But I do make some exceptions to this practice.  This is because there are a few films that have such extravagant plot twists near the end that they offer a uniquely special experience to first-time viewers with no prior knowledge of the story.  I could mention The Usual Suspects (1995) along these lines, but the quintessential film, for me, in this category is The Crying Game (1992). 

So for the sake of those who have not yet seen The Crying Game and don’t know about its story, I will try to discuss it here without fully revealing its remarkable plot secret.  Note I am not talking here about just some mystery film having some red-herring plot elements that deliberately try to mislead the viewer with false clues and bogus suspects.  The secret in The Crying Game lies at the very soul of the tale.  Nevertheless, even if you do know about this film’s secret, the film is still very much worth seeing, and it holds up on repeated viewings.  In fact I would say that The Crying Game, secret revealed or not, is one of the greatest films ever made.

The basic narrative of The Crying Game is, itself, rather complicated, because it starts off telling one story and then makes a drastic shift in location and direction to tell another, seemingly different, story.  In fact I would say that the film actually comprises three relatively separate stories that are told sequentially but are linked thematically. This sophisticated story structure helped earn the film’s writer-director, Neil Jordan, an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  (Jordan, by the way, is well-known for another film that he wrote and directed and that had a sophisticated narrative structure, Mona Lisa (1987)).  The Crying Game went on to earn nominations for five other Oscars (for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Film Editing), and it received seven similar nominations for BAFTA awards.  And unsurprisingly, the film was very well received by a range of top film critics [1,2,3,4,5].

The story of The Crying Game concerns the experiences of a young Irishman, Fergus (played by Stephen Rea), who is a committed member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitary terrorist group.  But the identity of Fergus goes beyond that of an IRA member, and in fact a person’s real identity, who he or she really is, is a fundamental issue of this film.  Films that pursue this existential issue of a person’s authentic identity often feature a male ingenue in the lead role.  Think, for example, of some films starring Anthony Perkins, such as On the Beach (1959), Phaedra (1962), or The Trial (1962).  Or think of some of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, like Vertigo (1958), which has been said to be Neil Jordan’s favorite movie [6].  In such films there is a man perplexed about the identity of a person he encounters, and in the pursuit of the authentic identity of that person, he comes to know more about himself.  And that is what makes these films memorable.
 
The Crying Game begins at a fairground where a seductive IRA member, Jude (Miranda Richardson), flirts with and lures a black British soldier, Jody (Forest Whitaker), into a secluded spot where he can be captured by other members of her IRA unit.  The IRA’s intention is to hold Jody hostage and offer him in a proposed prisoner-swap with the British Army who are holding one of the IRA’s own members.  If the British don’t agree to the swap within three days, the IRA says they will execute Jody.  During this waiting time for a British response, Jody is to be held prisoner by IRA member Fergus (Stephen Rea) in a rustic location. 

Now alone together in a secluded greenhouse, the more loquacious Jody draws the taciturn Fergus into  a conversation, and the two of them gradually get to know each other.  As they warm to each other, Jody talks about the inner nature of a person and insists that he can tell that Fergus is not basically a bad person.  In this connection he relates to Fergus the ancient fable of “The Scorpion and the Frog” [7]:

    A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the
    scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back.
    The frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?"
    The scorpion says, "Because if I do, I will die too."
               
    The frog is satisfied, and they set out,
    but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog.
    The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink,
    knowing they both will drown,
    but has just enough time to gasp, "Why?"
               
    Replies the scorpion: "Its my nature..."

So already the idea of one’s inner nature explicitly comes to the fore.

Jody also tells Fergus that he knows the IRA will never let him go alive, and that they will certainly kill him first.  So he shows Fergus a picture of his beloved girlfriend, Dil, and he says that after the IRA kills him, he would like Fergus to go look her up in London and look after her.
  
A bit later a situation arises for Jody to try to escape from Fergus.  As he runs through the woods with Fergus in close pursuit, Jody confidently yells out to his pursuer that he knows he would never shoot someone in the back.  This turns out to be true.  However, accidental circumstances associated with a British army surprise attack on the IRA hideout lead to Jody getting run over by a truck.  So Jody dies, anyway.  This is the end of the first story.

The second story shifts to London, where Fergus has fled.  He now calls himself “Jimmy”, his hair is cut shorter, and he has a job as a lowly construction worker.  Eventually, he tracks down Jody’s girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson), who is a vivacious young hairdresser of mixed race.  He introduces himself to her and gets his hair cut, but he doesn’t tell her about what happened to Jody, and his own part in her lover’s death.  Fergus also tracks Dil to a cocktail bar, The Metro, which she likes to frequent and which allows talented amateurs to sing songs to musical accompaniment.  On one occasion she movingly sings before a captivated bar audience the 1960's hit song “The Crying Game”, and this is one of the high points of the film.

But Fergus can see that Dil’s sensual attractiveness and natural, unguarded ebullience leaves her vulnerable to sexual bullies and predators.  So he finds himself stepping in to protect her from the thugs chasing after her.  Although Fergus may be a somewhat laconic male ingenue, he is still a tough guy and very handy with his fists. 

Eventually, after several such episodes, Dil and Fergus find themselves increasingly attracted to each other, and they finally fall passionately in love.  But Fergus still hasn’t revealed to Dil anything about his violent past and his partial culpability in Jody’s death.  And it turns out that Dil has her own significant secret, too.

Then we come to the third phase of the film, the third story segment, which I will leave for you to discover.  It does involve the IRA getting back into the picture, more killings, and more acts of deception.  In the end we can observe that Fergus has avoided carrying out two murders that he was ordered to commit and then finally confessing to a real murder that he did not commit.  But in the process he has been true to his own inner nature, and he has learned what he truly cares about.  And Dil has learned that, too.

As I mentioned, a key theme of The Crying Game is the nature of a person’s true identity.  In this film we see that there are complications associated with political, sexuality, nationality, and racial identity that can obscure from us what are the most important things about life.  So is identity what this film is ultimately about?  I would say, no.  This film is fundamentally about love.  Identity is a key, and often obscuring, instrument in our lives, but what we ultimately seek and need is love.  When we find true love, we are joining together with our beloved in accordance with our innermost nature, our innermost being.  This is what The Crying Game tells us.

To tell such a tale so that we get the message requires an outstanding script and excellent production values.  And it also requires brilliant and sensitive acting performances, which is what we get from Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker, and especially Jaye Davidson.

Remember what this film tells us via what Fergus and Dil discovered.  Your own innermost nature is not that of the scorpion; it is that of the lover.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Marjorie Baumgarten, “The Crying Game”, The Austin Chronicle, (18 December 1992).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “The Crying Game”, RogerEbert.com, (18 December 1992).   
  3. Hal Hinson, “‘The Crying Game’ (R)”, The Washington Post, (18 December 1992).   
  4. Kenneth Turan, “An Unusually Satisfying ‘Game’”, Los Angeles Times, (25 November 1992).    
  5. Richard Corliss, “Queuing For The Crying Game”, Time, (24  June 2001).   
  6. Jack Watkin, “How we made The Crying Game”, (Interviews with Neil Jordan and Miranda Richardson), The Guardian, (21 February 2017).   
  7. “The Scorpion and the Frog”, Aesop’s Fables Online, (n.d.).   

Neil Jordan

Films of Neil Jordan:

“Awake: The Life of Yogananda” - Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman (2014)

Awake: The Life of Yogananda (2014) is a biographical film about the most famous and important propagator/proselytizer of Indian yoga culture in America, Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) [1,2,3].  The form of yoga that Yogananda introduced and taught in the U.S.A. was not the popular physical exercise practice known as Hatha Yoga, but was instead a traditional Indian philosophy and meditation practice known as Kriya Yoga.  Yogananda came to the U.S. as a young man in 1920 and resided there for much of the rest of his life, becoming a local symbol of Indian spirituality.  His Autobiography of a Yogi (1946) [4,5], which I highly recommend to you, remains one of the most famous spiritual books ever written and has sold over four million copies.

The film Awake: The Life of Yogananda, which was directed by Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman, traces over much of the material covered in the autobiography, but it also includes a large collection of comments from a range of famous contemporary advocates of Yogananda’s teaching.  These include musicians Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, spiritual vocalist Krishna Das, alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra, and controversial rap music producer Russell Simmons.  However, I thought there were too many “talking heads” in this film offering their disparate opinions on Yogananda’s teaching.   Much of it was thematically repetitive, and after awhile this becomes distracting.  The most effective material is that which comes from the authentic source: Yogananda, himself.

The film starts with a brief introduction of Kriya Yoga and then begins tracing key elements in Yogananda’s life.  One important event was when he was seventeen and while walking along a back street in Banaras (Varanasi), he momentarily exchanged glances with a stranger whom he unaccountably seemed to recognize.  He quickly realized that this stranger, Swami Sri Yukteswar, was his long dreamed-of holy master, who would become his spiritual guide.  He thereupon spent ten years in his master’s hermitage, and he setup his own secondary school in Ranchi to teach boys both academic subjects and Kriya Yoga.

In 1920 Yogananda responded to an inner spiritual call and left India to go to Boston in the United States in order to offer public lectures.  There he was received as an exotic Eastern mystic in a country that was much less cosmopolitan than it is today.  Although another famous Indian yogi, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), had earlier visited the U.S. and made an impression on the public, Yogananda remained in Boston for a longer period, three years, and he made a more lasting mark. 

After some further travels and lectures about the country, Yogananda arrived in Los Angeles in 1925 and established on nearby Mount Washington his headquarters for the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF).  There his fame and that of his teaching continued to grow.  The film does refer, however, to some negative things that happened during the subsequent years that I don’t remember reading about in the autobiography. 

One negative thing was the falling-out that took place between Yogananda and his SRF assistant, Swami Dhirananda (Basu Kumar Bagchi).  Dhirananda had been Yogananda’s boyhood friend, but their breakup led finally to an ugly lawsuit and a complete parting of ways.  Another adverse circumstance of this period was the raucous and malicious mudslinging against Yogananda that was undertaken by conservative Christian groups.  In addition, Yogananda was even placed under surveillance by the FBI during 1926–1937 in connection with concerns about the Indian independence movement of those days.

In response to another inner “call”, Yogananda returned to India in 1935 to visit his master, Sri Yukteswar, who seemed to be well on his arrival.  But not long afterwards, Sri Yukteswar unexpectedly passed away, suggesting that the “call” Yogananda had received was to give him the opportunity to see his master one last time.  Afterwards, Yogananda returned to America and devoted himself to writing prolifically on spiritual subjects during his remaining years.


Much of what is revealed about Yogananda in this film is interesting but not startling.  However, there were two aspects of his teaching that I thought were particularly intriguing.  One is concerned with his professed affinity for the teaching of Jesus Christ.  In fact Yogananda frequently quotes or cites the teachings of Jesus from the Gospels, and he seems to regard Jesus Christ’s teachings as perfectly in line with his own Yogic tradition.  Yogananda even wrote a posthumously published two-volume work that offered his detailed commentary on Christ’s teachings [6,7].  And I would say that Yogananda’s warm embrace of Jesus’s words has very likely greatly enhanced his reception from Americans over the years.

A second noteworthy aspect of Yogananda’s teaching is his insistence that Kriya Yoga is not a religious offering at all but is instead a set of scientific truths.  In other words, he says Kriya Yoga is a practical science.  I am willing to go along with the general idea of this assertion, but I have found it disturbing to read in his autobiography that both he and his master, Swami Sri Yukteswar, believed in astrology.  Astrology is a provably falsified pseudoscience, and it has nothing to do with spirituality, or even with mindful existence.  Like black magic, astrology belongs to the realm of charlatanry.  
 
Nevertheless, I am willing to believe that Kriya Yoga (and other meditation-advocating practices) may have sound underpinnings to its methods.  This is emphasized by one of the film’s talking heads whom I did find worth listening to, Dr. Anita Goel.  Dr. Goel is a young double-doctorate scientist, with both a Ph.D. in physics and a M.D. from Harvard, and she suggests that Yogananda’s insights will ultimately help usher in a new revolution in our scientific understanding.  In this connection she asserts that whereas Einstein’s revolutionary discoveries in the 20th century helped establish the notion that the world is made up of just two fundamental and irreducible elements –  matter and energy – now in the 21st century we will have to move to an understanding that there are three fundamental and irreducible elements of reality –  matter,  energy, and consciousness.  In support of her high regard for Yogananda’s perspicacity in this area, Dr. Goel points out in this film that Yogananda’s teachings explicitly articulated the notion of neuroplasticity [8] well before that phenomenon was confirmed by scientific measurement.  

Overall, thanks largely to Anita Goel’s commentary and the considerable and fascinating archival footage showing Yogananda at various stages of his life’s journey, I recommend this film to you, even if you have already read Yogananda’s autobiography.


Notes:
  1. Anita Gates,"When Being a Yogi Had an Exotic Air - 'Awake,' About the Life of Paramahansa Yogananda", The New York Times, (9 October 2014).   
  2. Stephanie Merry, "'Awake: The Life of Yogananda' Movie Review", The Washington Post, (30 October 2014).   
  3. Sandra Hall, "Awake: the life of a Yoga pioneer", The Sydney Morning Herald, (27 June 2015).    
  4. Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, The Philosophical Library, (1946).
  5. “Autobiography of a Yogi”, Wikipedia, (25 January 2020).   
  6. Paramahansa Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You, Self-Realization Fellowship, (2004).
  7. “The Second Coming of Christ (book)”, Wikipedia, (23 January 2020).   
  8. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Little, Brown and Company, (2013; English translation by Charlotte and Sam Gordon, 2015), pp. 239-246.

Lisa Leeman

Films of Lisa Leeman:

Paola di Florio

Films of Paola di Florio:

“The Two Popes” - Fernando Meirelles (2019)

The Two Popes (2019) is a biographical drama about the two most recent Popes of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.  The story mostly consists of fabricated conversations that could have taken place between these two figures, based on what is known about them, during 2005-2013, when Benedict XVI served as head of the Church and the man later to become Pope Francis was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  Now you might think that a film that is mostly a presentation of “talking heads” – and one confined in this case to just two very old men, at that – would be boring to watch.  But The Two Popes turns out to be a fascinating and enlightening viewing experience [1,2,3,4], and one that held my interest all the way along .

Directed by Fernando Meirelles (known for City of God (2002) and The Constant Gardener (2005)), the film was written by Anthony McCarten (his script is based on his 2017 play The Pope); and it features nuanced acting performances on the part of its two leads, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce.  The latter three figures have each been nominated, in connection with this film, for Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTA Film awards in their respective categories – Best Adapted Screenplay (Anthony McCarten), Best Actor (Jonathan Pryce), and Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins). 

Although the film is generally carefully made and edited, there is one detriment to the production that reduces one’s viewing enjoyment – the cinematography of César Charlone.  Throughout the film there are noticeably shaky hand-held camera shots of closeups during conversations, which should be held static.  This is a major problem, because much of the film consists of conversational closeups, where the viewer must focus on subtle facial expressions expressing emotional nuances of the speaker and attentive listener.  In addition on many of these shots, the camera framing is poor and distracting.  And in other circumstances, outside of the conversations, there are often unmotivated, wildly swerving camera pans that are also distracting to the viewer.  This sloppy camera work is surprising to me, because César Charlone was also the cinematographer for Meirelles’s City of God and The Constant Gardener, two excellent  films that I don’t recall having had poor cinematography.

Nevertheless, the film has its virtues, and I would say that the truly standout positive element in the film is McCarten’s script.  It manages to artfully articulate and convey, through the extended dialogues between the two main characters, two very different faces and potential directions of the Catholic Church.  Both of these faces have their rationales and significant backing worldwide:
  • Pope Benedict XVI seeks to maintain the Church as a bastion of traditional values.  This is based on the idea that the Church has staunchly upheld these unchanging values throughout the many centuries of turbulent human history and thereby has always served as a constant beacon of hope for the faithful all over the world.
     
  • Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio seeks to fashion a more humane and forgiving Church that more sensitively reaches out with compassion to all the people who may be suffering in the world.  This would mean, for example, relaxing some of the rigid Church restrictions now in force concerning clerical celibacy, homosexuality, and abortion.  Instead of an unchanging Church, Bergoglio wants one that adapts to the world’s changing circumstances so that it can continue to demonstrate how God can always be an active part of today’s world.
So Benedict is the conservative, and Bergoglio is the progressive [5]. The cleverness of the script lies in situating these complex notions in a natural conversational format that not only outlines the thematic differences, but also reveals the basic warmth and humanity of the two characters.  (Since the two of them could both speak Italian, French, English, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Church Latin, it was fortunate for me that their language medium of exchange in this film was English.)

Anyway, the story of The Two Popes begins in 2005 with the death of Pope John Paul II, which meant that the more than one hundred Cardinals around the world had to come to the Vatican in Rome in order to participate in a Papal conclave to elect a new Pope.  Among these Cardinals are the conservative German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (played by Anthony Hopkins) and the progressive Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce).  After a couple of indecisive ballots, Ratzinger is elected and becomes new Pope Benedict XVI.  Bergoglio finished second in the voting and returns to Argentina.

Then the time shifts forward to 2012.  Cardinal Bergoglio is seeking retirement, but he now finds himself summoned for unknown reasons to the Vatican by Pope Benedict.  The Papacy, the viewer is reminded, has been afflicted in recent years by several scandals, including the Vatican Leaks Scandal [6] and the coverup of reported pedophilia among the clergy.  So we may wonder if Bergoglio’s call to Rome is associated with some of those problems.  Anyway, when he arrives in Rome, Bergoglio is taken to the Pope’s summer residence, where he begins his private conversations with the Pope.

Bergoglio wants to get Pope Benedict’s authorization of his retirement, but Benedict keeps changing the subject and wants only to talk about their theological differences.  And this is where the film gets into its interesting depths.  Benedict asserts his conservative adherence to tradition, while Bergoglio says the Church has not always been static, and he advocates a more accommodating approach.  He reminds Benedict that clerical celibacy was not imposed by the Church before the 12th century, and there was even no mention of angels before the 5th century. 

Finally, after discussing various issues, like Church tolerance of homosexuality and whether Bergoglio has been right in his practice to give holy sacraments to those outside of communion, Benedict emphatically asserts in frustration that “God does not change!”  But Bergoglio softly responds with the warm counter-assertion that God is always moving – and He is always moving towards us.

As the two continue their discussions, they become more affably cordial towards each other, and they talk about pop music and favorite television shows.  Benedict even sits down at the piano and plays some light music for Bergoglio.  And Bergoglio recounts to Benedict about his early days before entering the Church when he had a secular job and was engaged to be married to a girl he loved..  But then one day he heard the “Call” and joined the Jesuits.  For his part, Benedict wonders aloud worriedly that he fears he no longer can hear God’s call within himself.

Then they are taken to the Vatican, and they meet up again alone in the Sistine Chapel.  There Benedict finally reveals to Bergoglio why he summoned him to the Vatican.  He intends to resign from the Papacy, something that hasn’t been done for seven centuries.  And far from accepting Bergoglio’s resignation, he wants him to become the new Pope.

But Bergoglio doesn’t want to accept this promotion, because he feels he has committed grave sins in the past.  He confesses that during the Argentinian Dirty War (1976-83) [7], he made too many concessions to the despotic Argentinian dictators of this time in order to protect the Church.  He regrets not having stood up more for those who were suffering from torture and murder at the hands of the cruel junta regime that was engaged in state terrorism (as many as 30,000 innocent citizens were “disappeared” during this period [7]).  As a result of his relative inaction during that period, Bergoglio was later removed from being head of the Argentinians Jesuits and ordered to serve as an ordinary priest for ten years (1983-93).  So he now feels he is unworthy of being Pope. 

However, Benedict has his own humble confessions to offer in return, and he still insists that Bergoglio is the right man for the Papacy.  In the end the two men, both humbly seeking forgiveness, become closer than ever, and they formally absolve each other in turn of their past sins.  Before he returns to Argentina, Bergoglio even shows Benedict how to do the tango.

We then move forward to 2013, and Bergoglio is shown being formally elected as Pope Francis, who is the first Jesuit pope, the first from the southern hemisphere, and the first from outside Europe since the eighth-century .  The finals shots show the two confirmed friends, Benedict and Francis, amicably sitting together on a couch in front of a TV and watching the 2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Final between their respective favorite teams, Germany and Argentina.


All films have a narrative structure, and it is this narrative, or narratives, that command our interest.  In The Two Popes there are three intertwined narrative threads – those of Pope Benedict, Cardinal Bergoglio, and the Catholic Church, itself.  The two personages, Benedict and Bergoglio, are both earnest, well-intentioned, and selfless, but my own sympathies are more naturally aligned with the more humane and warm-hearted Bergoglio.  What makes the film compelling is the way it shows how narrative progression on the institutional (Catholic Church) scale can be so crucially affected by subtle exchanges on the human scale (even if the historical authenticity of those portrayed human-scale exchanges are unverified).  These human-scale exchanges, brilliantly portrayed by the two Welshmen, Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, are what make The Two Popes a fascinating work.
½

Notes:
  1. Philip Kemp, “The Two Popes review: opposites attract in this brilliantly acted tale of papal succession”, Sight & Sound, (4 December 2019).   
  2. Odie Henderson, “The Two Popes”, RogerEbert.com, (27 November 2019).   
  3. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, “The Two Popes”, Spirituality & Practice, (n.d.).   
  4. Peter Debruge, “Telluride Film Review: ‘The Two Popes’”, Variety, (2 September 2019).  
  5. Vinson Cunningham, “Will Pope Francis Cause a Schism in the Catholic Church?”, The New Yorker, (9 April 2018).      
  6. “Vatican leaks scandal”, Wikipedia, (12 January 2020).   
  7. “Dirty War”, Wikipedia, (24 January 2020).