Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Those were the days, when in morality plays people were wearing black hats and white hats, then came Sergio Leone and put the Ugly into the center, the human nature, unstable, treacherous, weak, until black and white faded and only gray remained in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven.
Biutiful, the latest Alejandro González Iñárritu movie is in the above context an anti-morality play, set to the bleakest possible world, or better underworld, of street crime, drugs, disease, illegal immigrants, sweat shops and lowering costs, but where the costs have distinctive human faces. The creatures that dwell at the bottom of the sea. A search for empathy, solidarity, kindness, love, seems futile in this world in which Inarritu searches for beauty.
And we have a perfect anti-hero Uxbal, a middle aged man, a former street kid, who did not move far away from where the circumstances have thrown him and also seemingly failing in everything he tries to do. He has problems connecting to his son, tries to keep his wife away from his children, he fails to protect his "client" street-peddler of counterfeit goods, a Chinese young turk is trying to replace him in his business of connecting cost-lowering sweatshop owners with people who have no better options in life and the police with its overt brutality (to which no-one objects) and covert insatiable greed. Ironically he earns additional money with (again seemingly earnestly) trying to help people (for a small fee of course) to pass into afterlife, but having problems accepting his own pending death from a prostate cancer. He is surrounded with a support cast of closet homosexual sweat-shop owner, bipolar wife, non-violent asshole brother and of course crews of illegal immigrants (if they still count as human, as for example in Children of men).
We have to give Uxbal credit for trying hard to do the right thing. He tries to help everyone the best way he can, he is trying to support his family, he is being loyal to his business partners and he treats them like partners, not like faceless numbers, he tries to help those for who we usually do not care about (even if for a commission), but he fails in practically everything.
The black street peddlers are being deported to their home countries, chines workers are dead because of cheap heaters Uxbal has bought to keep them warm in a cold cement basement. His children risk to become street kids (his own fate, he really does not want them to experience). His wife ends up in a hospital. But he manages to gather some money, to provide for his kids, all of which he leaves in hands of a woman, illegal immigrant, a wife of a deported street-peddler, no relation to him.
And there we find finally some hope, some grace, skewed beauty in this movie. Walking past the green shark composed of (pictures of) 500 € bills, Ige returns to take care for Uxbal's children, passing the opportunity to return to her homeland, reunite with her man, perhaps start a business with money Uxbal has left her and most probably live a better life than the one in the portrayed Barcelona barrio.
So this cough-ball of dirt of a movie, after all the wisdom, reflection seems to be dead (I cannot find any other metaphor for a dead owl) is a morality play under all its complexity after all, the only possible for today. There were times, when there was something to fight for (or to flee from, just to die alone in a foreign country shortly afterwards, as in case of Uxbal's father) and these are times of sharks composed of 500 € notes, whose bite is not apparent, but no less deadly. And here we can compare the youthful enthusiasm, hope of a better life (even elsewhere) of our fathers, with the disillusionment of today. At the end of the movie Uxbal is heading towards abyss with his young father (Smoke anyone?). So are we.

Monday, December 19, 2011

We Have a Pope

Facing upto one's limitations is the most humble trait that man has inherited when he evolved out of apes, thousands of years back. It doesn't take much to let the world know that you're not what people expect you to be, rather you're someone who is just you. Everytime great speakers, diplomats and leaders of the world move our hearts with their great speeches and powerful presence, we often wonder how these people carry the burden of such enormous responsibility on their backs, especially when he or she is actually quite old. Beyond a point, such people transcend the layers of humanity and become something else in our eyes. We revere them when we want, revile them when we want too. They become the bean-bags of their people.
It is in this context that Nanni Moretti throws open the gauntlet to his 91 year old newly elected pontiff, the new vatican pope, head of the roman-catholic church. Even as the landscape-like processions and meticulous, traditional methods slowly uncloud to reveal our protagonist, we could feel the tension that he involuntary summons out of his heart. Michel Piccoli, in probably the most enduring performance by a nonagenarian has what may safely be assumed, the most innocent-looking pair of eyes in the world. He's scared of responsibility. He's frightened of large crowds. He's someone who spreads love not from a balcony, but beside shoulders. In other words, he shows the qualms every person bestowed with responsibility does initially. When people say responsibility spurns fear, they're mostly afraid to admit it in public. But here, father Pope doesn't set his fears aside, hold onto them for dear life and fights to save himself from greatness.
One man's fears shall not be of any relevance when the perspective of the consequences is so big, it could damage the reputation of an entire faith, something that close to a billion people believe in. Hell, we're talking about an individual to whom even presidents, queens, princes and prime ministers bow to. The enormous pressures that now rest upon the shoulders of the solitary old man, makes the church call a therapist (Nanni Moretti) at this critical moment. The therapist however is able to do little with the limited privacy he's granted with his patient. However, he's now not permitted to leave the Vatican church until his patient is cured. In the middle of this paradoxical situation, the pose goes into such a state, he vanishes from the church itself and ventures into the city, without permission. Of course this information is not divulged to anyone present, resulting in some hilarious cover-ups. Now among the cardinals still locked inside the church, we start to see a whole different side to these religious heads of state. The fact that these people are also human beings, ordinary men and women, like you and me is surely obvious, but not necessarily not too apparent. The livery, the aura, the feeling of religious peace and serenity these people exude when they're in the eyes of the world is in sharp contrast to the people who they really are. From competing in sports, to consuming tranquilizers for sleep disorders, to eating disorders, we see them as a bunch of school kids, happily engrossed in their own worlds.
Nanni Moretti has mostly cast non-actors for his small crowd of cardinals. And through these inexperienced actors, he brings out exactly what is needed out of such roles: their innocence. We see these men, inexperienced in the harsh, cruel ways of life, loitering around in groups like school children, gossiping, laughing and chatting. The therapist too isn't spared of the irony. He had recently split with his wife who also happened to be a better therapist than he is, and who's apparently now living with another therapist.
It's true the movie tries to be too proud of the fact that that they're portraying some very important characters. I'm not exactly certain whether the locations that we see are really those from within the Vatican church or not. But the effect is flawless, making full use of the architecture, backed by an excellent score. Even the crowds and their reaction seem natural and eager, there could be a chance that this project began filming a couple of years back when Pope Benedict took charge. Being a relatively unknown film at the Chennai Film Festival, there weren't too many people who were keen on watching a movie about a Pope, especially when the show was in place of the Iranian film A Separation, as an alternative. It really didn't fill in the void as much as we expected it to, but was enjoyable, nevertheless.