1983 (Dir. Abrid Shine, 2014, India)


1983 begins with a montage revelling India’s 1983 world cup victory at Lords, a visible moment in Indian postcolonial history, imbuing the 1983 team with an inimitable political symbolism that remains seminal for Indian cricket fans. Sports films often function through the endless spectator pleasures of catharsis. The success of Lagaan initiated a transitory cycle of cricket based sports film, many of them mildly successful. I really did think by now that the Indian cricket film would be a rich little sub-genre unto itself. It is possibly an underdeveloped, dormant sub-genre occasionally producing some curious flourishes. 1983 is set in a small village in Kerala, focusing on a tight knit group of friends who spend their days and nights dreaming about cricket. Rameshan (Nivin Pauly is great in the lead role), a cricket fanatic, and Sachin disciple, dreams of playing professionally but transcending the antediluvian feelings of the village and his family towards cricket, as merely a distraction becomes an intolerable trial. As Rameshan grows older, Sachin Tendulkar replaces the victory of 1983 as a new icon of hope. Eventually, Rameshan lives out his dreams of cricket through his son who is selected for the under 14-district team.

The journey Malayalam director Abrid Shine maps is a maudlin one, abjuring the feelings of male impotency fostered by Fellini in his 1953 film I Vitelloni (1953). Exploring a situation in which Rameshan’s talents go unrecognised points to the way cricket as a hegemonic sport is controlled by an affluent, urban middle class. A dialogue between the rural and the urban when it comes to cricket as a sport that should be accessible to all (Shine stops short of politicising the narrative by turning it into a class struggle) becomes much more pertinent in the final third and while Shine strives for a sort of fantasy wish fulfilment with the unreal ending, an essential catharsis supervenes, chiefly derivative of the sub-genre. Shine brings together engineering (Rameshan invents his own cricket ball throwing machine to help his son improve his batting skills) and cricket into a productive, reciprocal national equation, arguing a co existence between education and sport strengthens rather than fragments. Since cricket is the lifeblood of India, standing in as a metonym for the nation, the ideological decision to focus on a village in Kerala re-balances the way sport is monopolised by an elite, but ultimately remains with the millions of people who play the sport on a daily basis. The film, strikingly shot by DOP Pradeesh Varma, is just one of many creative details why 1983 is a compelling feel good tale about cricket. If you are fan of cricket you will certainly not be disappointed.

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (Dir. Derek Cianfrance, 2012, US) – Eclipse of the Son [Spoilers ahead!]

I’m still convinced that as Ryan Gosling gets older he’s going to eventually look like Jimmy Stewart; it’s that curvature of his elongated face and dewy eyes. Much has been made of Gosling’s performance in this latest feature from director Derek Cianfrance and it is suggestive to the film. Gosling is a performer who is superb at conveying emotions through effective uses of silence. In fact, Gosling would be perfect in both a western by Sergio Leone as a gunslinger and a shadowy gangster in any Melville’s polar films. In other words, the less dialogue for Gosling, the better. This was proven by a near wordless performance as The Driver in Refn’s 2011 Drive. Gosling takes a similar approach in The Place Beyond The Pines, playing a disaffected and incorporeal young man who finds it insufferable to make a concrete connection between his responsibilities as a father and the demands of adulthood. Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt driver, who gets his thrills from entertaining crowds of enthusiasts at a travelling funfair. Luke is a drifter with no attachments other than his bike, which he considers to be family. He indulges his solitary existence in the transient, nomadic nature of the travelling funfair. The absence of any kind of family around him points to a potentially tough childhood, which is explored allegorically in the final third. The Place Beyond The Pines is essentially an old fashioned melodrama, framed against familiar social thematics including absent fathers, corruption, power and history. Luke’s story turns out to be the first in a triptych narrative that transforms from an opening tale of desperation into one about class and exploitation. The narrative shift from Luke to Avery Cross, a police officer, played by Bradley Cooper strays into Sidney Lumet territory of corrupt cops but Ciafrance weaves into this overly familiar genre convention, the idea of class. When Cross shoots Luke as a result of a bank robbery that goes awry, the elevation of Cross into a local hero sees him become embroiled with some of the corrupt cops in his precinct. However, it is only later does it become more evident that Cross has a powerful father as a judge and he uses his privileged status to turn in his friends in order to further what turns out to be an ambitious, if not cynically opportunistic, political career. This is one of the more ideologically complicated statements as we witness a perpetual cycle of class struggle and more specifically exploitation in which power and status silence those like Luke who live and die on the margins of a vacant American society.

The final part of the film is arguably when the film falters. Although the central theme of fathers and sons comes to vivid fruition, the casting of the two teenage boys and their characterisation is uninspired to say the least, reminding me of an inept pilot for a new series about disaffected youth in the 1990s. While the presence of Luke is rendered symbolically in the last two parts, it is the character of Romina (Eva Mendes) who provides a narrative bridge in the triptych. Romina, who works as a waitress in a diner, is a social outsider and her ethnicity (likely Mexican) underlines separateness yet she is by far the most dignified of the broken characters we encounter. It is a dignity threatened by the insecurities of the men around her. Given the genre context of the melodrama, if Romina comes to embody an ideal about family then both Luke and Avery are deconstructed as fathers and men who cannot function within the realm of family as the past prevents them from doing so. What this means is that a crisis of masculinity emerges discordantly from the three parts and culminates in a moment at the end, which seeks to articulate a view of fathers and sons predicated on class. What I find disconcerting is when films longer than two hours are automatically labeled with the tag of ‘epic’ when in fact ‘epic’ means something entirely different in film. The epic was and still is considered a useful genre category but now the term has become associated with porridge like cinema of The Avengers kind. What I admire about Ciafrance’s approach is that he takes his time with the storytelling but the way some characters are introduced and not even explored seems to be one of the recent detrimental effects of contemporary TV Drama upon film narrative. What gives this American independent film a certain edge is the masterfully atmospheric score by Mike Patton, which imbues much of the drama with a tone of dread, and uncertainty that recalls the work of Badalamenti for Lynch. Altogether, The Place Beyond The Pines makes for a superior American melodrama. 

ELENA (Dir. Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2011, Russia) – Class Warfare

One of the posters to the film.

Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev first made an impact on the international film scene with his directorial debut The Return (2003). The Return was well received and took away the main prize at the Venice Film Festival. Being Russian and adopting an elliptical approach, comparisons to Andrei Tarkovky were inevitable but seemingly appropriate given the film’s allegorical qualities. The evasive father in The Return is played stoically by Russian theatre actor Konstantin Lavronenko who would also feature in the lead role in Zvyagintsev’s follow up The Banishment (2007). Although critics were not as unanimous in their praise for The Banishment, the film confirmed Zvyagintsev’s impressive visual mastery of framing and composition. Additionally, The Banishment extended Zvyagintsev’s interests in family and communication as key thematic preoccupations. The Banishment is a film that would sit comfortably with Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s pictorial Once Upon a time in Anatolia – both films are obsessive about documenting landscapes. Zvyagintsev’s latest film Elena departs from The Return and The Banishment in one significant way; by setting events firmly in contemporary Moscow society. In a way, Elena signals a shift away from the mythical rural to a more familiar urban concern with current social and political issues that take into account the on going economic crisis and the accelerated creation of a powerless underclass. By switching his gaze to the class divide, Elena is clearly Zvyagintsev’s most prescient film and he does so without compromising his meditative camera style. Whereas The Return and The Banishment deconstruct the patriarch, Zvyagintsev’s latest film Elena makes a woman in her late 50s the focus of the narrative. Elena has been married to Vladimir for ten years. They have both been married before and their relationship is built on needs rather than love. It soon becomes apparent from her habitual routine of looking after the house and caring for her husband that Elena is nothing more than a glorified housemaid. The apartment in which they live is a shiny postmodern space that wouldn’t look out of place in an IKEA catalogue spread. At first it appears Elena is alone except for Vladimir but her journey to the inner city ghetto of Moscow shows us her unemployed son lives with his wife and two children in a cramped apartment. Elena supports them financially and we discover that her grandson needs money so he can go to college and potentially achieve some level of social mobility. 

When Vladimir has a stroke, he not only refuses Elena’s repeated pleas to help her son but begins to make out a will which effectively sidelines Elena and empowers his estranged daughter from his first marriage. Although it is not made explicitly clear whether or not Elena genuinely loves Vladimir, she realises that having given ten years of her life to effectively look after Vladimir, she cannot simply allow the daughter to inherit everything. Vladimir’s objections to offer financial support for Elena’s son stems from a class snobbery that is vindictive, cruel and representative of the way in which the rich will do anything to protect and preserve the status quo. Elena’s decision to accelerate the death of Vladimir not only ensures her of a share of the inheritance but transforms her into a radical political entity. Elena’s heinous actions might be cataclysmic in terms of morality but Zvyagintsev’s ending in which we find Elena and her son’s family occupying the apartment as their own suggests that murder can also be a strangely revolutionary act because in this case it brings with it the promise and perhaps even fulfilment of social mobility. Why social mobility? Mainly because it was the defining characteristic of a functioning capitalist society in which class could be attained if someone worked hard enough. Social mobility has been erased today, replaced by an inexplicable economic divide that has produced an antagonistic class conflict in which a tiny elitist minority reigns supreme while the underclass continues to grow unhealthily into yet another social problem as touted by the mainstream media. If this is true then why does Zvyagintsev opt to depict the underclass in the film as equally unsympathetic as the rich? Upon occupying the apartment, Zvyagintsev trains his camera on the reaction of Elena’s apathetic son who reiterates his zombified position of the fixated armchair television spectator, underlining social mobility as an aspiration has now been taken over by the numbing diversions of a one dimensional media circus. With Elena, director Andrei Zvyagintsev certainly demonstrates he has considerable range and is not afraid of remaining apolitical. In my opinion, Zvyagintsev is one of the best filmmakers at work today in the world. If you don’t believe me, just watch any of his films; they are mesmerising.

TRISHNA (Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2012, UK) – The Troubled Maiden

The beautiful Freida Pinto as Trishna.

Micheal Winterbottom works so quickly that it’s hard to keep up with him. His latest feature sees him returning to Thomas Hardy, this time adapting Tess of the d’Urbervilles for a contemporary postmodern treatment. The setting is modern day Rajasthan and the cast is made up of Riz Ahmed (Four Lions) and Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire). I had no knowledge of Hardy going into the film and I haven’t seen any other big screen interpretations of Hardy’s novel so my judgment is based purely on the film I saw. I’m not sure how entirely successful Winterbottom is with this one. I can’t really fault the performances, camerawork or use of locations; they are uniformly vivid and engaging. My biggest criticism with Trishna is when it comes to the script – the characters do go on a journey of self-discovery but we never really feel any emotional connection with them – they remain at a distance. Perhaps this is deliberate, if so, it was the wrong decision. Additionally, the film shifts frantically in terms of narrative from one setting to another, so we never get to really fully experience and savour the milieu which is an essential part of the story.

Jay (Riz Ahmed) is a young, wealthy bachelor but looking for an outlet so to avoid having to run his father’s hotel business in Jaipur. On a trip with some friends, Jay meets Trishna (Freida Pinto), an impoverished but moderately educated girl who belongs to a large family. Jay falls in love with Trishna and gets her a job working at his father’s hotel. The courtship rituals that take place in the hotel leads to a decisive moment between the two of them and it is a moment which will come back to haunt both characters. Jay takes Trishna to Mumbai and briefly they seem content. The sequences in Mumbai involve a reflexive backstory with director Anurag Kashyap and music composer Amit Trivedi appearing as themselves. Once Trishna has revealed her dark secret, the relationship disintegrates. Jay retreats back to his father’s hotel and takes Trishna with him, humiliating her through sex. Without giving away too much about the ending, it was to be expected. The fact that Jay and Trishna cannot reconcile points to a wider class conflict at work and also underlines yet again the economic void between rich and poor in what is a rapidly transforming India. Pinto as Trishna is perfectly cast and she really does carry the film with her understated performance. At times, Winterbottom seems to rush through the narrative so the film could have done with some more time in the editing room. Winterbottom has said in interviews that the film brings together elements from European and Indian cinema. What I found most interesting was the secondary narrative of Trishna which involves her impoverished family who seem out of step with the cosmopolitan side of Mumbai. It is an obvious yet prescient conflict between tradition and modernity which is still at the heart of many of the best Indian films.

Winterbottom doesn’t make bad films; each film he has made is unique and his body of work shows an impressive range that would embarrass most contemporary filmmakers. Trishna has its flaws, like most films these days, but Winterbottom has to be praised for his creative autonomy and capacity to think cinematically about universal ideas which can just as easily and carelessly be reduced to simplistic visual fodder. Trishna has appeared without much of a fanfare and the distribution of the film has been weak. The film has received mixed reviews but given the marketable presence of both Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed, I feel the distributor and marketing dept might have missed a trick here. Trishna is still on general release so it will be interesting to see how well the film performs. Writing this has made me want to go back and watch Trishna again so I can try and understand more about what exactly Winterbottom is trying to achieve. I just want to finish by saying that technically Trishna is faultless and offers some imaginative images of India. It’s just a shame that this film isn’t going to be as successful as it should have been. Ken Loach is right; the cinema screens have been colonised and the consequences are being felt each week for specialised films.