Some recent viewing…
Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s follow-up to The Circle (2000) is equally impressive in its empathy for social undesirables (in this case, a lower class pizza deliveryman played by a schizophrenic actor). Like its predecessor, Crimson has a circular narrative structure beginning with a long take and a frame within a frame composition: the deliveryman robs a store while a crowd of onlookers gathers outside an open door. But the rest of the film adopts its own visual language emphasizing vertical space, stairways, elevators, and Tehran at various elevations befitting its focus on the tensions between rich and poor and the rage that results from insulting behavioral codes. (In many ways, Panahi could have titled his film High and Low, after the classic 1963 Kurosawa thriller.)
Written by famed Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, the movie isn’t simply a formal exercise–it’s an existential, compelling movie that uses everyday events (driving through congested traffic, shopping, delivering pizzas, being detained by authorities) to enter into the heart and mind of its laboring protagonist. Thematically, the film has been compared to such social vigilante movies as Taxi Driver and Falling Down, but its treatment of violence is much less sensationalistic and its personal affect much less diluted by Hollywood conventions than those two films. It’s another universally important work by this gifted filmmaker.
Despite the fact that this film was recently nominated for an Oscar, it’s quite good. Louis Kahn, one of the great American architects of the 20th century, was found dead in the men’s room in New York’s Penn Station, penniless, in 1974. After his death, it was discovered that he was the father of three separate families whom he maintained partial contact with over the years. His only son, Nathaniel, later became an off-Broadway theatre director and independent filmmaker, and this essay film is Nathaniel’s attempt to reconstruct his father’s biography–and reconcile his feelings toward it–through his study of Kahn’s monumental buildings, personal acquaintances, and unfinished dreams which never materialized.
That the film works on so many levels (as artistic analysis, personal confession, and mystery story, for starters) and draws its various threads together into a coherent emotional whole highlighting their interconnectivity is only one of its many strengths. Nathaniel shows how Kahn’s architecture evoked a yearning for transcendence; he shows how that creativity was locked within a paradoxical and complex person; and finally, he carefully reconstructs the details of Kahn’s life through the people who knew him in various contexts, slowly building a multi-faceted portrait as graceful and moving as the remarkable buildings surveyed throughout the film.
Every time I passed my local theatre screening this movie, there was a significant line of people waiting to get in. Whether that’s a sign of the film’s individual popularity or residual run-off from last year’s well-distributed and reviewed documentary scene could be a toss up, but it’s a welcome occurrence in either case.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s brooding and poetic drama is uncommonly beautiful–its widescreen vistas of the lakes and forests of its increasingly rural setting help unite the film’s physical and metaphysical concerns. After 12 years of absence, a prodigal father returns home to his wife and two adolescent sons. A meal between them takes on a ritualistic feel that sets the tone for his interactions with the boys: taking them on a camping trip, his efforts to legitimize his authority are met with understandable resistance as the boys oscillate between tentative obedience and open defiance, their journey together gradually becoming a profound rite of passage.
Zvyagintsev creates interpretative tension for the viewer as well by presenting the father’s character through a juxtaposition of religious motifs and human frailty: the family photo is kept in a Bible beside a drawing of Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac and the initial view of the sleeping father is a direct quotation of Mantegna’s painting, “The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ,” but the father’s brusque authoritarianism often seems misdirected, severe, and unempathetic. His efforts to repair the past may very well destroy the future.
In many ways, the film can be compared to another recent movie, Koktebel (2003), which also investigates archetypical father/son issues within the sensuous Russian landscape. (In light of the fact that Alexander Sokurov’s latest film is entitled Father and Son, one wonders if a major thematic concern is developing within Russian cinema.) It’s immersive and compelling storytelling, well deserving of the international praise it has received.