The Here After [2015] – A Powerfully Restrained Tale of Condemnation and Repentance




Poland-based Magnus von Horn’s Swedish directorial debut The Here After (‘Efterskalv’, 2015) is a slow-burning, calmly intense drama which deals with the themes of punishment, guilt, forgiveness and aftermath of crime. It’s natural for adolescents to feel that the whole world is conspiring against them; to embroil themselves in atmosphere of isolation. For Magnus’ young protagonist John (Ulrik Munther), it’s not just a transient feeling; it happens to be the truth. He faces vicious resentments and reactions within his small-town community for an unforgivable crime he committed few years before. The small town doesn’t provide the luxury of city that may bestow second chance for juvenile perpetrators through its cloak of anonymity.

The Here After explores an interesting, if not very familiar subject – communal apathy and group hysteria. Recently, the Swedish film (also released in 2015) Flocking subtly examined the mass hysteria of misled, tightly knit small-town community. Thomas Vinterberg’s disturbing Danish drama The Hunt (2012) also took a piercing look at the exceptionally cruel and unforgiving people. However, we know for sure that the protagonists of the aforementioned films were innocent and yet malevolently ostracized. But it’s the opposite in ‘The Here After’. John has definitely done the deed and spent two years in juvenile detention center (in Sweden the maximum sentence for crimes committed by juvenile is 4 years). Now this fragile-looking boy seeks rehabilitation among townspeople who welcomes John with deviant antisocial behavior.


It’s best to experience The Here After firsthand than simply read about plot information and aesthetic design. Those who have the patience to watch restrained, slow-burn drama can delve into reviews after watching it first. Writer/director Magnus von Horn parcels out morsels of information in each scene and plays it through precise, contemplative visual design. Our interest is constantly piqued by his decision to not reveal too much too soon. Most of the shots remain painfully static and distant, forcing us to bear the on-screen emotional and physical bruises in silence (the lack of background music adds lot to the unnerving mood). The film opens with the shot of teenager John packing up his bags from the correctional facility. He looks frail and quiet. Yet the uncomfortable side glances and hard stares of people around him suggest that he has committed some heinous crime. Father Martin (Mats Blomgren) picks up John. The camera frames them from back-seat of the car as they travel alongside tree-lined road to their agricultural town. Martin’s concern for his son is evident in the way he forces John to wear seat-belts and through his forced positivity (he tells an awkward joke at dinner table among other things).

A neighbor’s gaze on John lingers little longer than necessary to increase discomfort. Younger brother Filip (Alexander Nordgren) casually bitter comments are scalding enough. In the supermarket aisle, John deliberately stands in front of a woman who tries to choke him. John decides to go back to the same school, despite knowing he would be subjected to acerbic actions. He silently provokes the fellow students to beat and bully him. Apart from dad Martin, classmate Malin (Loa Ek) shows empathy towards John. She is new to the neighborhood and has only heard of John’s past actions. Yet they both are afraid or unwilling to discuss about the boy’s feelings or indelible past. As the spasms of violence (against John) rises to threshold point, the boy’s young shoulders and heart struggles to bear. The steadily-flowing hatred makes it hard for John to continue his pursuit of absolution.


It would be easy task to realize blond-haired teenage as a ‘monster’ who masks his deviant interior through shy posterior. Director Magnus von Horn takes the hard task of realizing the murderous teenager as a human without watering-down the scope of his crime. Unlike The Hunt or Flocking, the story doesn’t deal with victim-hood or abuse because he welcomes punishment from the people by remaining passive and unbelievably tolerant. John’s restraint causes lasting tension in the narrative. Director Magnus intention is to not just showcase John as a victim. He rather studies how tolerance and compassion repeatedly taught is exercised on the practical side (in society). The depiction of the lynch mob isn’t one-dimensional or bluntly judgmental. Magnus focuses on both monstrosity and fear of the individuals that fiercely intends to cast away John.

The driving force of the film is Magnus’ understanding of the character dynamics, his carefully-constructed imagery, and Ulrik Munther’s central performance. Cinematographer Lukasz Zal (Ida) bathes the domestic scenes in blue light, suggesting the dysfunctional nature of John’s family. The director-cinematographer duo excels in blocking the scenes between John and father Martin. They often sit in different rooms (dad in dining room and John in living room), the noise of TV screeching in the background. The inability to transcend the father-son relationship is depicted through cold distance between the rooms. Although most of the scenes between John and Martin pass in brooding silence, what’s more interesting in the father-son relationship is the feigned attempt to bond. Martin gives his son shooting and driving lessons, yet their closeness is devoid of emotions. Such scenes only further accentuate the father & son’s taciturn behavior. The inclusion of a grumpy, dying grandfather into the family dynamics shoots up the sense of unease even in quotidian situations (like having dinner). Similar to Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s works, Magnus strongly maintains the menacing atmospherics through the use of diegetic sounds. Nevertheless, there’s something unsatisfying about the ending. The high-charged emotional explosion is free of ambiguity and only confirms what we anticipated—that there is no chance of reconciliation or return to normalcy. Missteps and flaws aside, Swedish pop-star turned actor Munther’s understated performance grabs our attention. His sullen face, self-hatred and slowly burning rage cuts us deep. 

Trailer

 

The Here After (98 minutes) is a disquieting drama with a strong aesthetic sense that’s interested in examining the human darkness. It questions the possibility of repentance or second chances in unforgiving, hypocritical societies. 

 

Mukti Bhawan [2017] – A Bittersweet Nuanced Meditation on Death and Rebirth




Indian films generally lack cultural specificity, narrative complexity and ambiguity. These things are seen as obstacles by many Indian film-makers who’d like to impart an ‘appealing’ homogenized atmosphere. The irony is that Indian movie audiences are gradually pulling themselves out of the so-called lagging ‘mainstream’. Shubhashish Bhutiani’s sublime debut feature Mukti Bhawan (aka ‘Hotel Salvation’, 2017) is the latest in a string of independent Indian productions that fascinatingly pays sharp attention to the nation’s social and cultural idiosyncrasies. Moreover, it’s always bewitching when a young film-maker takes on the themes of death and emancipation in his first feature. Hotel Salvation is an emotionally resounding yet a very culturally specific tale. It’s set in the holy city Varanasi where everything from its architecture to the inhabitants is multi-layered. Like many other modern Indian cities, Varanasi couldn’t be imprisoned within single definition. This paradoxical city is the very important piece in this gently probing character-driven cinema.

It isn’t possible to strictly categorize Hotel Salvation. Yes it’s about death but the color palette is bright and vivid which evokes warmth and pays tribute to life. It has brilliant low-key comic situations but it’s definitely not a comedy. The impulse to categorize could actually work against experiencing this film. Mr. Bhutiani’s chronicle on the journey towards salvation or enlightenment insists on the art of learning to let go. It may also be the better advice to encompass ourselves within the narrative.

Daya (Lalit Behl), the healthy 77 year old patriarch of a middle class Indian family, declares to his family that he is ready to die. He takes a recurring nightmare as the valid sign for his imminent death. The workaholic, stressed middle-aged son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) is naturally puzzled. Abiding by the traditional path, Daya plans to go to Varanasi and spend his final days on the banks of holy river Ganges (its Hindu faith that people who die there would achieve salvation, escaping the endless cycle of life). Rajiv complies with his father’s wishes and decides to accompany him to Varanasi after hurriedly organizing things at the office. The father and son check into ‘Mukti Bhawan’, run by priest/proprietor Mishraji who sets them up in a room after conveying string of rules, including the strict stay limit of 15 days ("If you die, good for you. If you don't, go back home”). As days go by Rajiv learns that the place and its people don’t exist within a rigid framework. Moreover, since the father and son are freed from usual burdens they get moments to reflect on their relationship. While Mr. Daya finds kindred spirits before setting on his final journey, Rajiv is driven restless by job obligations and family troubles -- his daughter Sunita’s (Palomi Ghosh) betrothal is breaking apart. And, all these conflicts in relationships and emotions subtly take root and stumbles upon organic, unforced resolution.  



Spoilers Ahead..............

Using inter-generational differences as a narrative device was recently done in Raam Reddy’s Thithi (2015). Mukti Bhawan, however, inculcates different shades to this familiar theme using carefully calibrated characterizations. Writer/director Bhutiani also adds an interesting dimension to the inter-generational relationship through Ghosh’s granddaughter character. Bhutiani talked in an interview about how the word ‘mukti’ means freedom or liberation which is different from its otherwise strictly religious meaning of ‘salvation’. Seen from that perspective, the film broods on the question of ‘what constitutes liberation?’ in the life of a girl in 20s, a man in his 50s and another man in late 70s. For Sunita and Rajiv the freedom reflects the need to restructure their life (or ‘following the heart’), whereas for Daya the liberation is of ethereal nature. Death is an important theme that’s added into this mix, but doesn't work as the predominantly gloomy theme. The whole exploration of Varanasi showcases how life and human warmth flows in a place where death isn’t just an opposite force but just a constant companion. Such heavy-lifting themes of redemption, familial relationships and death usually make a film-maker to entangle himself in philosophical drudgery, although Bhutiani only focuses on the tangible human emotions. Simple gestures of empathy and thoughtful silence replace extravagant words.  

Mr. Bhutiani was 21 when he wrote and directed the 25 minute short film Kush (set against the backdrop of 1984 anti-Sikh riots) which won various laurels including Orizzonti Award at the Venice Film Festival. He was 23 when he embarked on this project (produced as part of Venice Film Festival's Biennale College programme). What’s astounding about him is the way he instills emotional sensitivity without forsaking his nuanced craftsmanship. As I mentioned Mukti Bhawan is culturally specific. But the emotions can impact humans beyond geographical boundaries. The cultural specificity in the narrative doesn’t restrict itself to the Hindu faith on death and salvation. It’s intertwined amongst the character dilemmas and beliefs. While there’s hefty cultural tribute paid to the city of Varansi, Bhutiani also probes at some of the culturally out-dated elements (for example, Rajiv deciding on his daughter's life). The narrative’s comedy elements mostly arise from awkward silences and the general inefficiency which we constitute as one definition of Indian-ness. That’s excellently portrayed in the scene when furious Rajiv communicates with his daughter and wife through Skype (after the daughter breaks up her engagement) in a poorly-linked cyber cafe. In the scene, Rajiv’s feelings aren’t belittled but the confusion that develops from the relatable situation derives some laughs. Furthermore, the low-key comedy works as a means to understand the character’s different shades rather than being used as a mere distraction.


Right from the opening scene, Bhutiani delivers the palpable sense of existing in cramped conditions; the limited space within which we can’t escape from fellow humans and their display of emotions (impressive cinematography by David Huwiler and Michael McSweeney). Yet within such chaotic, disorganized space there’s possibility of peacefulness and sense of gratification as we come to terms with people in our immediate surroundings. The director is aware of when to push the scene for emotions and when to drench it with silence. All the actors from Lalit Behl, Adil Hussain to Navnindra Behl (Vimla) give superb performances because they have very much aligned themselves with the ebb and flow of Bhutiani’s vision. After a mild altercation with daughter Sunita, Rajiv seems to have stumbled upon a realization. But he doesn’t express it in melodramatic words or melt with tears. There’s just a wordless shot of Rajiv watching his daughter going to job in his father’s old scooter. He helps her start the vehicle and for a moment they look at each other and it’s understood the conflict is somehow resolved. Then there’s one of my favorite scene towards the end that happens after Daya’s death. Rajiv and other men walk through cramped space carrying his father’s corpse. It’s a very tight shot and when he uncontrollably cries we shed tears alongside him. But then his daughter and wife chip into the frame and the shot goes wide, the daughter gently encouraging her dad to clap and sing hymns. And suddenly the tightness of the situation dissipates to makes us see death as the beautiful journey of a satiated soul. It’s in these uncommunicative yet strongly impactful scenes thrives the brilliance of Mukti Bhawan; just like how simple words doesn’t have provide the sensation of attaining ‘mukti’.      

Trailer


Mukti Bhawan (100 minutes) evidently showcases how refined visual storytelling can get to the depth of human emotions without resorting to high drama. Director Bhutiani’s impressive maturity in tackling heavy themes with a positively infectious tone of optimism doubles up our faith in humanity as well as in contemporary Indian cinema.  


Something Wild [1986] – A Mildly Subversive and Unpredictable Road Movie




The American independent road movies of the 1980s witnessed a paradigm shift when compared to similar films made in the late 1960s & 70s. The rebels who broke away from the cultural inhibitions were now perceived as eccentric persons, waiting to reintegrate themselves back into the family unit. Gone are the days of puzzling men hitting the road with their iconoclastic bikes, in search of the so-called freedom in a conformist society. Nevertheless, the interesting element in the 80s American road movies is the balanced portrayal of women (contrary to earlier era road movies that solely focused on men). Nastassja Kinski in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), Julie Hagerty in Albert Brooks’ Lost In America (1985) were much more complex female characters. They didn’t fit into boorish category of ‘wild’ or ‘tamed’ women. Jonathan Demme’s unpredictable screwball comedy -- written by Max Frye -- Something Wild (1986) furthered this complex depiction of women in road films. The film’s Audrey ‘Lulu’ Hankel (mesmerizingly performed by Melanie Griffith) engages in subversive behavior in a society where the cultural status quo has been reinstated. Rebels are now comprehended as looneys; the hippies are replaced with yuppies (young urban professional). The dream to be a rebel stays alive in the movie’s characters. When the wheels are set in motion and this particular dream is achieved, there’s only threatening consequences and no sense of gratification.

Jonathan Demme’s overlooked gem is a fascinating tale of self-reinvention. It starts off as a quirky road-trip rom-com and gradually wades into nightmarish territory, reminiscent of Scorsese’ After Hours (1985) and Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). The protagonist is a young business executive Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels), who has buried his rebellious streak within. Soon, he is going to be the corporate company’s VP. A trickle of rebellious attitude escapes now and then, provoking Charles to skip out on the check at a restaurant. As Charles silently sneaks out of the restaurant without paying, he is confronted by a woman on the street. The woman calls herself Lulu whose bob haircut, eye-catching exotic jewellery perfectly contrasts Charles’ conservative grey suit. Lulu’s appearance was modeled after the appearance of silent-era actress Louise Brooks – best known for her iconic role in Pabst’ Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). When we first see Lulu she is reading a book on Frida Kahlo, an enigmatic and extraordinary artist. What connects the fiercely independent, sexually charged woman and the buttoned-up executive is the urge to revel in debauchery. Lulu was just looking for a na├»ve man to kidnap and take him on a rampant road trip.


Lulu’s intentions for the journey aren’t explained much and its intriguing how Charles easily gives into her impulsion. He shows her the picture of his happy family (wife, son and daughter) in the wallet and moreover confides that there’s important work to be finished in the afternoon, before the upcoming weekend. Yet, when Lulu stops at a motel after ripping off at a liquor store, intoxicated Charles follows her to bed. Speaking in hushed tones, Lulu literally gets on top of Charles, ramping up the wildness. Charles finds more pleasure in this adventure. He is also careful to not get caught and there’s a simple reason for the yuppie to break away from the traditional life. But what’s the story behind Lulu, the hedonist? We get the details of her story, but we don’t figure out what’s in it for Lulu to take this trip. The trip runs from Manhattan to Pennsylvania, where Lulu sheds off her black wig & jewelries (to reveal golden blonde hair), discloses her real name (Audrey Hankel), and transforms into a small-town girl in order to visit her old-fashioned mother.  By the time, the darkly fierce Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta) joins Lulu, everything turns into a nightmare. The intensified Capra-esque style wildly shifts to the territory of Coen Brothers or Lynch. Furthermore, we aren’t sure about who is playing who.


Something Wild would certainly divide viewers (especially it’s erratic tonal shifts). The script written by then-recent NYU graduate Max Frye blurs genre boundaries as it traverses down the same ‘road’ in both directions. Frye’s intricate writing includes ironical road signs, puzzling locales, and genial multicultural individuals whose presence transcends the visual dryness of typical road-movie rom-com. Demme and Frye perfectly worked together to create the sense of place through its people. There’s ample space provided to document the thriving life around Charles & Lulu’s journey. Case in point, the film’s opening scene, which doesn’t establish the characters, but only the atmospherics. Even though the environment doesn’t have a huge hold over the narrative dynamics, there’s something fascinating about it. Acclaimed cinematographer Tak Fujimoto amplifies the stylistics while capturing the ever-changing dynamics of the American cityscapes. But, for the most part the cinematography isn’t intrusive as it allows the actors to do all the heavy-lifting.

The writing or direction doesn’t entirely reinvent romantic formulas, but we don’t often see rom-com’s diffused with juicy subtext of class antagonism – between Charlie and Ray. Resting beneath the layers of antagonism is their vulnerabilities which is revealed in the third act. However, Lulu isn’t just depicted as an object in the middle of this antagonism, waiting to be claimed by the winning side. She is too proud and independent to fall for simple romantic notions. I particularly liked how the journey doesn’t lead to any big changes. The character doesn’t entirely break away from their respective pasts. Yet, the possibility for the self to evolve and further redeem oneself is kept alive. “What are you gonna do now you've seen how the other half lives? The other half of you” asks Audrey to Charles. Dreams are limitless, laced with our fantasies. When dream comes true there’s clear picture of its limitations. Self-reinvention commences after learning these limitations and maturing alongside the pursuit of dreams. By the very end, Charles’ individual boundaries isn't just extended, but entirely transformed. What does this transformation or personal reinvention mean for his life and relationship with Lulu? That’s sensibly left for us to decide. Director Demme scores huge points for casting the right actors for the three central roles. Ray Sinclair was Ray Liotta’s first major role. His specialization of playing charming sociopaths started with this film. 

Trailer

 

Something Wild (113 minutes) is a must-watch genre defying exercise in director Jonathan Demme’s oeuvre, whose film-making approach refused to be pigeon-holed by particular style or theme. It’s starts off as a smart, seductive comedy and wildly veers off to unexpected cinematic territories (which perfectly worked for me).  



Death of a Cyclist [1955] – A Class-Conscious Drama tinged with Film-Noir Textures




Juan Antonio Bardem was one of the luminaries of the post-World War II Spanish cinema. As a committed communist, Bardem didn’t mince words when it came to criticizing Franco’s dictatorship. Both Bardem and Luis Garcia Berlanga (the other influential Spaniard who spearheaded 1950s cinematic transformation) rejected costume or militaristic dramas (which the regime gave instant approval) and designed social drama, in the vein of Italian neo-realist cinema (by early 1950s the style was already passe in Italy). In 1951, Bardem and Berlanga co-directed the ironically titled ‘The Happy Couple’, in which they used humor to detail the contemporary Spanish life. In 1953, Bardem co-wrote the satirical script for ‘Welcome Mr. Marshall’, which was critically hailed in the international festival circuits. In the same year, Bardem founded cinema journal ‘Objectivo’. It raised awareness about film criticism and informed readers about the films banned by the strict censors (two years later, the film journal itself was banned by the government).

 In 1955, Mr. Juan Antonio Bardem decided to write as well as direct Death of a Cyclist ('Muerte de un ciclista', 1955), a subversive social commentary loaded with melodrama. In the same year Bardem publicly denounced the state of Spanish cinema under Franco’s era. When Death of a Cyclist won the international critics’ prize at Cannes, Bardem was serving a brief prison term (on political grounds during the shooting of his next acclaimed feature Calle Mayor). Mr. Bardem was arrested several other times during Franco’s regime. One of vital achievements of the director is creation of Production Company called UNINCI. Although the production company was disbanded within a small period of time, it enabled the return of renowned auteur Luis Bunuel (from his exile in Mexico) to make the satirical masterpiece Viridiana (1961).


Death of a Cyclist was Bardem’s serious effort to push the boundaries of national cinema through the application of some of the American cinema aesthetics. It was equally influenced by otherwise polarizing neo-realism and Hitchcockian imagery. The movie opens with the titular incident – a speeding car runs over a man on a bicycle, in the middle of vast rural expanse. A man immediately jumps out of the car to help the severely injured cyclist, but the beautiful woman who accompanies him asks to leave the wounded guy. The man and woman named Juan (Alberto Closas) and Maria Jose (Lucian Bose) are having a secret affair and if discovered their social status may get affected. Maria is the wife of a wealthy industrialist Miguel (Otello Toso). While the emptiness of bourgeois life has made Maria to seek the arms of her old sweetheart Juan, she isn’t daring enough to leave the lavish lifestyle. Juan was an idealist and a soldier who fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil war. Now, he has gained some political security and a job (as professor) due to his powerful brother-in law.

Next day, Juan reads about the death of cyclist, published under a small column in the newspapers. The couple’s guilt of leaving the cyclist intensifies when a scornful pianist/art critic Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla) – a frequent guest at rich-people parties – insinuates that he watched the adulterous couple in the same rural road. It’s not clear whether Rafa watched the accident, but Maria Jose wants to protect herself before the issue becomes a big scandal. Juan makes a trip to visit the cyclist’s widow, residing in cramped quarters. An elderly neighbor lady informs that the widow has made the exhausting trip to Madrid to claim her husband’s insurance. The visit gradually leads to regeneration of Juan’s morals, who has been hollowed out by collective as well as individual failures. Now he wishes to confess his crime and liberate himself and he prods Maria Jose to do the same.


Director Bardem’s refined visual language tries to explore the nature of two different conflicts: an internal conflict – choosing between good and evil; and societal conflicts – huge division between poor working class and bourgeois society. The internal conflicts are brilliantly emphasized by juxtaposing inner feelings with distinct atmospheric surroundings. Bardem stages the central characters’ conflicts in well-realized backgrounds of a circus arena, an art exhibition or riotous party. Maria and Juan’s meetings are often filmed in close-up or over-the-shoulder shots, where the tight framing zeroes-in on their timid feelings. Bardem employs efficient, creative editing techniques (by Margarita Ochoa) to build suspense. Apart from the superb use of jump cuts and match cuts, two editing sequences stand-out: the class room and party scene. The indifferent action of Juan in the classroom was punctuated with long shots of classroom and increasingly tighter shots of Juan’s face. He is distressed after reading the news of cyclist death, which leads him to embarrass a good student in front of the entire class. Juan’s actions in the scene are seen as a subtle indictment of the elite members of Francoist Spain, who utterly disregarded the issues around them.

While the internal conflicts, accentuated using noir textures and Hitchcockian techniques, works well for the dramatic perspective, the social insights and politicized conversion of Juan are neither subtle nor very convincing. The early sequence when Juan visits the cyclist widow’s dilapidated apartment houses (uses a lot of high angle shots to indicate the impoverished's stature) was a scathing, subtle critique on the class-ridden society, created by fascist regime. But at other occasions, Bardem lays out class politics through blunt dialogues or overt symbolism. The conversations between Juan and the student Matilde is contrived in its nature, because Juan’s redemption is repeatedly insisted as the rebirth of communist ideologue. Apart from inclusion of some of these tiresome political commentaries, Bardem excels in relating the individual feelings of oppression and dread to the collective feelings of 1950s Spanish society. The ending was one of the other minor flaws in the narrative, as director Bardem was forced to ‘punish’ the adulterous women (to pass the censors).  

Trailer

 

Death of a Cyclist (88 minutes) is a riveting indictment of the bourgeoisie class’ ego, greed, and spiritually empty opulence. Barring few blunt segments, the film’s sociopolitical commentary remains more relevant than ever.