Thursday, February 23, 2017

Silence (Chinmoku) (1971)

"In this world, neither God, nor Buddha exists; there's nothing at all anymore".

God's silence is questioned yet again in Japanese filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda's harrowing masterpiece, "Silence" aka "Chinmoku" (1971). We have seen similar themes of the crisis of faith examined in classics such as Ingmar Bergman's "Winter Light" (1963) and Luis Bunuel's "Nazarin" (1959). But despite familiar subject matter, Shinoda's film, based on Shûsaku Endô's novel stands out in its own right, given its setting and focus on some very convincing and relevant religious debate.

It is 17th century Japan. The practice of Christianity in banned, and all practitioners, preachers or believers of the faith are being pulled up by the powers that be, and persecuted by means of brutal torture to set an example of what might happen to those who continue to believe. As clergymen from Europe continue on their mission to preach their religion, Japan stands in strong opposition denying Christianity, claiming that they do not need it as they have their own religion! In such a scenario, Father Rodrigues (David Lampson) and Father Garrpe (Don Kenny) arrive in Japan to try and preach the Christian faith and also locate the whereabouts of Father Ferreira who vanished without a trace after preaching for over a decade in Japan. 

The rest of the story follows the tense journey of these two priests and their quest, as they attempt to connect with the Christians who live a secretive, Godless existence, with all the former priests either vanishing or abandoning them. As the Japanese officials begin their crackdown on the spread of Christianity, and hunt for the priests who have entered their territory, more and more believers are taken hostages and sacrificed. Amidst all this, danger lurks constantly, for the priests' guide Kichijiro (Mako Iwamatsu) is grappling with his own faith, torn between being a weak human and a strong Christian! 

Shinoda's film is a dark, brooding tale that presents a convincing and frightening picture of religion becoming an existential necessity. It depicts a time of shockingly excessive dependence on religion and how its teachings enslave its followers. Be it a preacher or a believer, they all want to embrace the church and follow the word of God. Believers who want to believe in Christ aren't allowed to, but they see no other way, for abandoning their God would mean eternal damnation. Defending their faith is the only way to God, the gateway to paradise, and eventually the only aspect that gives their life some meaning, a reason to live. 

But deep within, each one is struggling with their faith, and constantly attempting to resolve an inner conflict. How far can one go to defend their religion? Where does religion end and humanity begin? Can both coexist? These are some pertinent questions raised in "Silence" and the answers are provided eventually as this distressing tale unfolds, leaving the viewer emotionally drained. 

As the Tokugawa Shogunate attempts to banish Christianity, countless believers and priests face persecution and eventual execution. Some of these scenes are most effectively directed, making them somewhat difficult to watch. During the priests' journey, they are made aware of some chilling accounts of the atrocities of the so-called devil incarnate Inoue Chikugonokami (Eiji Okada). An old woman narrates the tale in graphic detail in a short scene that is hair-raisingly effective despite not explicitly showing the said deeds on screen. 

One of the greatest strengths of "Silence" is in the way Shinoda builds up this atmosphere of persistent dread and unseen horror right up to a turning point in the journey of Father Rodrigues. And then when we are finally introduced to the oppressors we can't help but express some surprise at how expectations are somewhat belied. Shinoda ensures that the opponents of Christianity never come across as pure evil or the devils they are painted out to be. The interpreter (Rokkô Toura), who works for the Magistrate Inoue, provides some justification to deny or ban Christianity, which seems strangely convincing. "Christianity is like an unwelcome gift, that is forced upon the receiver. We have our own religion; we don't need yours!", he explains to a dumbstruck Rodrigues. 

The demon Magistrate Inoue, is in fact, depicted as a thorough gentleman with a smiling face, apart from his weird habit of rubbing his wrist. In a scene that is a definite highlight of the film, Inoue makes a very interesting argument in a debate with Father Rodrigues, in which he compares foreign religion to a concubine. Neither party wants to yield or understand the other side, neither wants to step down. Both believe they are right, and only the viewer knows what is most rational, right or wrong be damned! This is one exchange that is at once, amusing as well as thought-provoking. 

An important character is that of Kichijiro, the guide, mentioned earlier. He keeps reiterating that he is a devout Christian but he has moments of weakness. He eventually becomes a yokel who is laughed at. But can we really blame him for being human? He fears for his life and puts it above religion, unlike all the others around him. He is constantly frustrated, not able to understand why he cannot be a good Christian. Is that his flaw or virtue? Should we really blame Kichijiro for becoming Judas and betraying his Jesus, Father Rodrigues when his life is at stake? Shinoda leaves that to us to decide. 

"Silence" makes a steady progress towards its spectacular third act during which it is revealed what really happened to the missing Father Ferreira. Even more pertinent points are made here, making us applaud the writing. Tôru Takemitsu's eerie score and Kazuo Miyagawa's fine cinematography accentuates the overwhelming experience of the happenings on screen. When a film makes its viewers struggle to take sides, and makes them think, therein lies the power of cinema. 

Score: 10/10


Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Charulata (1964)

The striking opening sequence, all of the first almost ten minutes, captures the entire universe of the eponymous Charulata with an effortless grace. The depiction of desolation and ennui, usually more associated with Antonioni, is portrayed with a lucidity and perfection that is rare.

Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) glides through her palatial mansion, its set design meticulously constructed to reflect the era in which the story is set. Its vast emptiness mirrors Charu's lonesome existence, while her newspaper owner husband Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) continues to be preoccupied with his work, which he is also quite passionate about, even comparing it to Charu, stating it to be her Souten or a second wife (translated as 'rival' in the Criterion English subs!).

A lover of literature and poetry, a big fan of Bankim Chandra Chaterjee and perhaps a hidden literary genius herself, we see Charu biding her time roaming about, browsing through books, humming songs and sewing. But more importantly, she also kills her boredom by taking a curious look at the outside world through the half covered windows with a gaze that often switches between contemplative and childlike. The latter quality is more evident in the way she moves from window to window, simply to catch a glimpse of a portly man with an umbrella passing by, her opera glasses always acting as her lens to observe a world that seems distant or inaccessible to her.

In a not-so-subtle manner, Ray shows how Charu feels at a distance even from her husband who fails to notice her as he walks past, following which she fixates the opera glasses on him, watching him walk out of the frame.

Bhupati isn't the stereotypical wife-neglecting husband, however. He does love his wife. He is just so preoccupied in his business and passion of voicing out his political beliefs through his paper (Charu's rival, as mentioned) that he is temporarily unaware of his wife's presence and her needs. It suddenly strikes him that she may be lonely when he finally notices that she has enough time to embroider a nice handkerchief for him! He is also quite the naïve one, bestowing his trust on his family members without giving it second thought. One betrays him, the other stops short of doing so! Bhupati is a well written flawed character; a good human being, designed to be sympathized with, but one who's so preoccupied with his paper and armchair activism that he is totally ignorant of what’s brewing under his very nose; including his wife's loneliness, her attraction to his cousin and an evil scheme at work.

The dark void of Charu's existence sees some light with the arrival of Amal, Bhupati's younger cousin, who is introduced with an overtly symbolic entry of a storm (a literal storm brings in an emotional storm to come!). Amal is a young, vibrant chap, quite passionate about literature and poetry. Charu is gradually swept away by his charm and a common interest. She feels liberated, merely in experiencing this attraction!  The fabulous garden scene that's a highlight of the film, demonstrates this perfectly.

Some great camera wizardry at display right there; with the camera itself possibly mounted on a swing and capturing the beautiful Charu humming away and then cutting to Amal, who sways in and out of her line of sight. The joyous stupor comes to an abrupt halt, however, when Charu notices a woman with a child and is reminded that she is also childless; and perhaps can never have one with her husband. And then the worried gaze shifts towards Amal; a sense of sudden guilt perhaps makes her quickly snap out of it!

What's often brought up as a commonly applied motif is the women shot behind bars of windows, obviously symbolizing a woman's emotional imprisonment despite the lavishness that surrounds her. It isn't just Charu but Manda (Gitali Roy) and others as well, filmed behind the bars, perhaps extending Charu's plight and making her an epitome of the 19th century Indian woman, a prisoner of her own fate and of the male-dominated society, married off to some rich man in an arranged ceremony and forced to give up her personal freedom. It was an era when it was not very common for married women to venture out or socialize and hence the entrapment was a real deal; emotional as well as physical, symbolized further by the caged birds.

Ironically, Charu's husband is an advocate of liberalism, a vocal supporter of the renaissance movement as well. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the father of Indian renaissance is mentioned; he was famous for abolishing the infamous Sati system in which a woman was forced to die with her husband in his funeral pyre! And despite his liberal views, Bhupati also belongs to this very segment of society in which women are left to languish in their trapped existence, rarely at liberty to be independent, and forced to be at the mercy of their spouses.

Charulata's empty existence does find some meaning eventually when she goes ahead and writes and publishes an article in vengeance, just because Amal asks her to "show some respect". Bhupati's reaction to this is a complex one; one of astonishment, shock and embarrassment, at being made aware of his wife's talent by his drunk friends. For a second he doesn't know what to think, and it is stupendously conveyed.

For a film so delicately balanced and executed, the denouement, specifically when Charu breaks down into an unrealistic monologue, "Why did you leave me Amal?" conveniently timed, just as Bhupati happens to be at the door is a tad clumsy, contrived to deliver him the double blow and eventually reach the broken nest, tragic freeze frame.  It feels like a cop-out, and an obvious writing deficiency. There could have been other well thought out ways to make him aware of the fact that Charu loved Amal. Also, one wishes the line delivery of Shailen Mukherjee was less affected and artificial, especially when he speaks in English. 

Amal fleeing overnight because of Umapada's  (Shyamal Ghoshal) betrayal is a bit abrupt as well. Why not stay around and offer his cousin some moral support instead? While Charu's feelings for Amal are quite explicitly exhibited, Amal is never shown reciprocating to that extent, hence it seems a bit of a stretch for him to act so impulsively and clear out fearing another betrayal.

Lilting music, great cinematography, great writing, carefully executed mise en scène and an extraordinarily splendid performance by Madhabi Mukherjee make the film.

Score: 8/10