Sunday 3 July 2016

Sydney Film Festival (23) - Max Berghouse on LETTERS FROM WAR and PSYCHO RAMAN

Antonio Lobo Antunes is an extremely distinguished Portuguese writer. He is also a practising psychiatrist although with three marriages and two divorces under his belt one might reflect that his capacity for self understanding might still be limited. He is a prolific writer and has been mentioned as a possible recipient for the Nobel prize. For me at least, his work is excessively florid and not easy to get into. Following the death of his first wife, from whom he had been divorced for a long period, he collected the letters between them while he was a serving medical officer in the colonial war in Angola in 1971 and published them. These letters are the basis of the film Letters from War by the director Ivo Ferreira.

The rebellion in Angola, a colonial territory already held by Portugal for about 500 years started in 1961 and by 1971, when Dr Antunes is sent to the colony as part of his compulsory military service, the game is pretty much up. Portugal is a very small country with limited population and Angola is large indeed. The Portuguese, probably because they were few in number both at home and in the colonies, were certainly not racist and there was and indeed still is a significant mixed race population. The Portuguese government simply could not let go of its territory which it thought to be bound to the home country under the "Lusitanian model". By the time shown in the film, the death of so many young men in the colony was so great as to bring serious adverse repercussions in the home country and this led to a well-known peaceful revolution in 1974.

Many reviewers, including some I much respect, have drawn positive comment about the exchange of letters between the young couple (the distant wife is pregnant with their first child, a girl) and the inevitability that the plot as it develops in Angola comes off second best. My view is exactly the reverse. The letters are in my view too personal to have been published at all and particularly the doctor' s excessively poetic missives seem quite mawkish to me, especially as they are quoted so extensively. Some reviewers have indicated that the trajectory of these letters moves from the intensely personal to a necessarily negative view of the fortunes of war, but for me, they remained narcissistic to a degree. The letters are read as voice over and they are read by the recipient. The husband's letters are the more evocative and communicative of information, or perhaps I should say feeling, but I am not at all sure that the female voice was strong enough or compelling enough to convey much emotion. The extreme use of voice-over necessarily makes direct dialogue much more difficult – there is simply less space and time.

It may seem from the above that I had little regard for this film but that's not the case. I enjoyed it immensely although perhaps not for the reasons envisaged by the director. The black-and-white photography is simply stunning and I commented to my companion at the film how much I missed such beautiful craftwork in comparison with the relatively easy to obtain emotional depth with colour film. Shot effectively exclusively in Angola itself, it reflects from the very first scene the collapse of Portugal as a society and country as the doctor voyages to Angola in a well worn ocean liner. The setting shown is the ship's dining room with military officers in day dress uniforms and women in ball gowns all of which evokes a period much much earlier than the 1970s. In Angola itself, the troops including the doctor are stationed in isolated forts which are completely rundown and scarcely better than the "natives'  bush huts.

Everything is clapped out, overused and ultimately hopeless. Everyone including the doctor finally succumbs to lassitude with survival and return home the only measure of worth. As I have said in some other reviews of films shown at the 2016 Sydney Film Festival, I find very compelling the ability and willingness of some societies to look back on the historic past – an unsavoury past perhaps – with genuine honesty. This is such a film. It reminded me of numbers of films about French colonial Vietnam with similar young men, conscripted and wrenched from their everyday life and living more or less in constant fear in isolated and hard to defend wooden forts.

Hardly any of the "natives" appear as fleshed out human beings but it is clear that there is a very significant number in the military force, supporting the Portuguese. While the director's intentions surely seems to be related to the personal, overwhelmingly the young married couple divided by geography, my mind constantly focused on the external and found it quite riveting.

I doubt this is a film for everyone. Some detailed knowledge of the state of Angola at the time, and of Portugal itself, is probably necessary to get the most from the film. I found it both beautiful and deeply involving.

PSYCHO RAMAN (Anurag Kashyup, India, 2016)
I think the wonderfully engaging and exuberant director Anurag Kashyap burst into the consciousness of most viewers at the Sydney Film Festival when the newly installed director of the Festival Nashen Moodley introduced a last-minute placement of the director' s very fine film "Gangs of Wasseypur" which I think in reflection gained much of its vigour by being long with sufficient time for the director to play out his various enthusiasms. His current film Psycho Raman is a very interesting and intensely paced thriller – but it is nothing more than that.

Without having much knowledge of Indian religion or culture, there are a couple of issues that Western audiences are going to have to get past which will have immediate resonance for Indian audiences, but which Westerners will not have. Firstly the film concerns the current day with a clearly psychotic street person, Raman, whose wretched life seems clearly related to his mental condition, consciously imitating a factual historic mass murderer in Mumbai of the same first name in the 1960s. Secondly a principal Hindu goddess is Kali, a goddess who in some traditions and historically, particularly, in the 19th century, required constant violent death to keep her happy.

In the first scenes including the credits the director makes clear that his film is not about the original murderer and I think this establishes a baseline by which we are not to take matters too seriously. He compounds this in my view by exercising some considerable restraint in the display of the various murders. Obviously a wide-eyed dishevelled murderer dragging his murder weapon – a car tyre iron welded to a length of piping, in the slums of Mumbai is scarcely subtle but the murders, though not the consequences of the murders are kept off screen. We see bashed and bleeding bodies but not the tyre iron connecting to bodies. The deaths include the murder of a 6-year-old boy, albeit not an especially engaging little fellow.There really is an air of defiance in the director’s doing this to show his indifference to an unwritten convention against the suffering of children.

One of the pleasures for a Westerner is to indulge in the quite conscious theatrics of the display of slum land Mumbai. The grunge is certainly pasted on very thickly in a way that most Indian films would seek to avoid. Maybe it takes a certain sort of talent to see it  anew as something to heighten the dramatic effect of the plot. As to the plot, the obverse of the cold eyed maniac is the investigating plainclothes police inspector Raghav who seems unable to get by in his public and private life without regular and high dosages of cocaine. A police inspector in India is a very high ranking position, generally with accommodation provided in a government service apartment block and with more than enough financial means to have staff. A "dope fiend", especially one in this case who is the son of an even more distinguished public servant, would come as much more a surprise to an Indian audience than it does to us. But it is played for fun or at least fun in the way the director perceives it.

Between the two names of killer and detective, is constituted the name of the original killer: "Raman Raghav" and indeed the killer sees in his adversary, the police inspector, a kindred spirit whom he can and indeed does pass on the "entitlement to kill".

Pretty much flawless for what it is, there is no point in trying to seek greater depth in the film. It is certainly not subtle but shows the director has a complete command of the genre and applies to its western progenitor, a distinctly Indian aspect. Unfortunately the great professional proficiency shown by the director in recreating this genre piece has led to a conspicuous emotional coldness. There is scarcely anyone, certainly not protagonist and antagonist, for whom one feels the slightest empathy. Ultimately that really is a requirement for most films and simple professional facility is insufficient.

One final note is what seemed to me to be out of place namely the font of the credits which except for their colour, white, could almost have come from a 1950s Hollywood Western. Also for no particular purpose the film is structured into multiple acts with each act marked by surtitles which I thought unnecessarily fussy. That said professional proficiency in understanding and creating a genre film with distinctive Indian elements, is no mean feat and I enjoyed myself.

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