The Other Passion

passion7It is not a commonplace thing in modern American society to face death squarely in the eye for your faith in the Almighty. Seems religious trials are almost unheard of these days. And, no, that science teacher who belittled you for thinking the earth is only being 6,000 years old doesn’t count as persecution. Martyrdom, to most Americans, is something that happened a long time ago or, if it is still happening, is very far away. It is something we, happily, do not really have to see or experience…which is why I think it terribly important to acquaint oneself with it. Some significant films that deal with this subject include James Collier’s The Hiding Place (1975), Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). It is Dreyer’s film I have selected to champion today (although watch the other movies too as they are all very good).

passion4The Passion of Joan of Arc was directed by Carl Dreyer (Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet) in the late 1920s (and, yes, is silent). Sergei Eisenstein’s influence on Dreyer is apparent. The same ground-breaking art of montage editing that Eisenstein used to amazingly cinematic effect in The Battleship Potemkin (1925) (and in Abel Ganz’s Napoleon, 1927) is used once more and with great skill and emotional power by Dreyer to heighten the urgency, peril, and frenetic horror of the trial of Joan of Arc. The phenomenal editing coupled with the frequent use of overpowering close-ups and the stellar acting (most notably by the lead heroine played by Maria Falconetti) make for a stirringly dramatic tour-de-force.

And to think it was lost for several decades before it was found in the early 1980s in a Norwegian mental institution.

passion8The Passion of Joan of Arc does not follow the life or brave actions of the female French martyr who heard voices that told her to lead an army against the English during the Hundred Years’ War. The movie presumes we already know Joan and so does not go into the details of her life story or the surrounding circumstances of her arrest, but instead documents her trial by the British for heresy in 1431 in Rouen. By focusing on only the final leg of Joan’s incredible life, Dreyer is able to fully explore one of the most famous trials in human history and immerse the audience in the frustrating hysteria and hypocrisy of the time.

passion6Renee Maria Falconetti (predominately a stage actress) plays the ill-fated Joan of Arc, in what is considered by many to be one of the best screen performances in film history. She is on trial for heresy because she claims that she was commanded by God to dress as a man and go to war for her country. Her persecutors cannot accept this as this would mean that God was against the English (and that God, furthermore, condones cross-dressing).

passion3The trial consists of a series of ornery old clerics bandying words in desperate attempts to trap Joan into admitting or denying her knowledge of being under God’s grace; the knowledge of one’s salvation was considered quite heretical at that time. Instead of giving them what they want and signing the confession that will lead to her execution—but at least, in their eyes, she will be pardoned by God for her offense—Joan instead shows her resilience, intelligence, and steadfast faith that God will protect her. They threaten her and torture her and taunt her with communion, granting it to her only if she confesses. Joan has principles and beliefs and so lying about hearing God to avoid torture would be the greater evil than her being tortured and killed as a heretic. In Joan’s mind she cannot be wrong and in the mind of men who are interrogating her she cannot be right. When two opposing forces are so fervently convinced of their own divine knowledge, where then shall reason seek council?

passion5The final act is no less compelling or stirring than the rest of the film. Joan’s death by being burned at the stake is shocking and unforgettable (and there is a bit more to it than just an execution). Average moviegoers might get to the end of this movie and ask themselves, “Well, what was the point of that?” but I encourage you to allow the film to wash over you and consider the undaunted faith of one person. This film is anything but hollow. As a depiction of injustice, hypocrisy, the dangers of theocracy, and the products of unshakable faith, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a must-see. It’s a grand visual spectacle with marvelous, realistic performances, and expert cinematography and editing (and if you watch the Criterion DVD you’ll be treated to the fantastic new score composed by Richard Einhorn—originally the film was meant to be musically silent, but the wonderful scoring does add a bonus layer of emotion).

passion2In America we have it pretty easy as far as martyrdom goes. Religion is allowed to be a punchline. Many times a person is viewed as simple, naive, hypocritical, or just plain dumb for submitting oneself to a higher unseen authority. Probably because, in many cases, many practitioners of faith are just that: ignorant, bigoted hypocrites. They are allowed to be because they are not challenged. When faced with certain death, what does your faith look like? How strong is it? To what are you clinging and why? I think that’s an important question.

passion9Perhaps what stirred me most about Dreyer’s film is not just its visceral beauty and technical prowess, but its immense fervency and maturity in its depiction of theological struggle. He manages to humanize the whole court, not just Joan. Everyone is wrestling with God in this narrative. There is much to glean from in The Passion of Joan of Arc. This is a strongly recommended and thoroughly arresting feast for the soul.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Sept. 15, 2009

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One-Armed Man Strikes Back

Spencer Tracy is one of those actors who, no matter what, always manages to remain consistently entertaining, powerful, and strangely understated. Many of his performances were quiet and earnest, yet one might always suspect that there rested a stern bite beneath the surface.

Who couldn't love this face?

Who couldn’t love this face?

His later work in such films as the Scopes Monkey trial courtroom drama Inherit the Wind (1960); the phenomenal Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) which chronicled the trials for the Nazis war crimes following World War II; the racially charged Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) in which his white daughter is engaged to a black man (played by Sidney Poitier); and even a wryly comic role as the straight-laced Capt. Culpepper who decides that he might be entitled to more in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) to name a few are very memorable indeed.

His white hair, craggy face, and gentle, thoughtful timber added much to many films. Not terribly fond of rehearsals, Tracy would read the script once several days before shooting and not look at it again (in order to preserve the freshness). Tracy (much like Frank Sinatra) was also not fond of multiple takes.

This is comfy. I could narrate "How the West was Won" from here right now. Give me the microphone.

This is comfy. I could narrate “How the West was Won” from here right now. Give me the microphone.

Today I wish to highlight what cab be been best categorized as a “minimalist neo-western.” The Spencer Tracy vehicle, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), follows many of the familiar conventions of typical cowboy/western fare, but the added touch of taking place in 1945 gives it a uniquely contemporary flare.  The film is directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape), and also stars Robert Ryan (Battle of the Bulge), Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen), Ernest Borgnine (Marty), Anne Francis (Forbidden Planet), and Walter Brennan (The Pride of the Yankees).

Nowhere: vicinity of the middle. Population: you. Laws: laws?

Nowhere: vicinity of the middle. Population: you. Laws: laws?

Bad Day at Black Roc is set in a quiet—too quiet—western town in the middle of nowhere. There are only a few residents and the train never stops there…that is until the mild-mannered John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) shows up one day. Macreedy, a one-armed war veteran, is greeted with hostility and suspicion by all. It seems everything the intelligent and likable Macreedy does just bothers the residents of Black Rock.
Quit bein' a wise guy and answer the question. Why did the chicken cross the road?

Quit bein’ a wise guy and answer the question. Why did the chicken cross the road?

Macreedy, a simple gentleman with a streak of hopelessness since the loss of his arm, has come to Black Rock with one simple purpose: to give a medal to the man who’s son saved his life in the war. The catch: the man is a Japanese-American named Komoko. Macreedy learns (despite many attempts to chase him out of town) that tough guy, Reno Smith (Ryan), and his racist thugs murdered Komoko. It’s a taut suspense thriller to see if Macreedy can stay alive long enough to catch the next train. Despite being handicapped and an older guy with one arm against a whole town of cowardly thugs out to get him, Macreedy is filled with a new purpose: to avenge Komoko and bring his murderers to justice, but as the Black Rock folks close in and gradually cut off communication and transportation to the outside world, the situation becomes increasingly dire. The few friends he has made in Black Rock are all too conflicted and afraid to help him so Macreedy truly is alone in the wretched desert town. It all culminates into an edge-of-your-seat final showdown (but definitely not your typical western showdown).
We don't take kindly to strangers.

We don’t take kindly to strangers.

Bad Day at Black Rock is a satisfying film with great performances and a sharp look. Director John Sturges does fine work. The suspense and feelings of isolation really boost the story into something quite special. A rather humorous and violent exchange between Borgnine and Tracy in a bar is particularly enjoyable. Macreedy’s transformation from a man whose handicap has led him to give up on himself into a man full of righteous indignation and a profound sense of purpose that awakens his will to survive is electrifying. Once again Spencer Tracy gives a very fine performance as the exceedingly polite but resolve-filled John J. Macreedy.

Why don't you just tell me where to sit.

Why don’t you just tell me where to sit.

The film deals with hard issues. Anti-Japanese sentiment felt by many Americans during World War II is manifests in a very unapologetic and ugly way. This movie is really about a viscous hate-crime being avenged. It pulls the carpet out from under the audience even more by having the long arm of justice ironically represented by a one-armed man. I strongly recommend you seek out and watch Bad Day at Black Rock. It’s a pleasurable little film with a lot of strong atmosphere, color, and suspense. I love it and I think you will too.

Now to frame Richard Kimball.

Now to frame Richard Kimball.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 30, 2009.

Everybody Loves Satyajit Ray

Not all Indian cinema is bombastic Bollywood musicals.

Every so often a film or filmmaker reaches us at just the right time in our lives. Thus was my late introduction to Indian auteur, Satyajit Ray, and his films Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959), together making up the Apu Trilogy. Perhaps it is just the unpredictability of life and apparent insensitivity of fate featured in these movies that make them so readily understandable despite the great cultural gap, or perhaps it is something more. Granted, tragedy plays a huge part in all three films, but I do not think I would love them so much if they were devoid of any hope or redemption.

pather panchali2Ray’s style is almost documentarian in execution and one must pay very close attention to the women in his films. Like Japanese director, Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu monogatari, 1953), Satyajit Ray likes to portray the struggles and plights of women in patriarchal society with compassion and humanity. The Apu Trilogy is a family history. Characters are introduced, but not all will make it to the end. (Warning: spoilers ahead…but I do not think revealing too much can weaken these films’ impact).

The first film, Pather Panchali (a.k.a. The Song of the Little Road) is the story of the Ray family in the provincial village of Bengal, India in the 1920s. The struggling Brahmin family consists of the naive poet father, Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee); the stoic mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Bannerjee); their daughter, Durga (Runki Banerjee and Uma Das Gupta); Sarbajaya’s elderly sister-in-law, Aunt Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi); and soon Apu (Subir Bannerjee) is born.

pather panchali1

The narrative is not forced. Pather Panchali feels like a slice of life and reminiscent of Vittorio de Sica with its Neo-Realist approach and use of non-actors. Things happen. Emotions rise and fall. We see the whimsy of old Aunt Indir and we see the simple ideals of Harihar wax away. We see a poor mother’s internal struggle with her foolish husband (reminding me quite a bit of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu monogatari) and her strained relationship with Indir and her torment at the hands of the village folk who persecute her for the way her daughter behaves. We see young Durga steal fruit and cause her mother much duress and we thrill with little Apu and his beloved sister when they makeup after a fight and they see the train rush by for the first time as they race through fields of tall grass.

We are introduced to these characters as if they are real people, not mere pawns to move a plot forward. In a way, there is no plot. Satyajit Ray’s character’s are the impotent victims of the unsentimental storm of life and our hearts are broken for them as we witness their misfortunes and we count the lines on their weather-worn faces as the years go by. Death’s sting is especially potent in this film. Sickness, death, and other hardships meet this family and rob them of much, and as the glue that holds them together is rubbed thin we find a melancholy solace in the knowledge that sometimes we must simply press on.

aparajito1

The second film, Aparajito (a.k.a. The Unvanquished) is just as heart-rending. The dwindling Ray family must continue on. This marks one of the first sequels (for me anyway) where I was really saddened that certain characters would not be returning. I noticed the quiet expressions in their faces when they were thinking about their loved ones who did not make it.

Apu (Pinaki Sengupta and Smaran Ghosel) is growing older and making friends in the city of Benares where they have moved. His father, Harihar, works as a priest, but when he falls sick and does not survive, Sarbajaya is left alone to provide for herself and her young son. They move to the Ray ancestral village of Mansapota and she works as a maid.

Aparajito2

Sarbajaya is my favorite character. Her struggles as a woman, a wife, and a mother in a harsh world that has not done her any favors is mesmerizing and tragic. She is stoic and levelheaded, but over the course of the two films we witness the toll the tough years take on her. She is just one woman who has not ended up where she probably originally hoped or thought, and she must take care of her family despite all her pain. Her portrait, brilliantly played by Karuna Bannerjee, is beautiful, powerful, and heart breaking.

Apu is apprenticed to be a Brahmin like his father, but attracted by some children playing along a road, asks his mother to let him go to school. He discovers the joys of learning. Sarbajaya feels like Apu can learn and bring honor back to the family. Perhaps the next generation of the Ray family will not be as unfortunate, Sarbajaya’s eyes read. Apu proves a diligent scholar and is awarded a scholarship to a prestigious school in Calcutta. At the sudden prospect of being truly alone, Sarbajaya tries to dissuade Apu from furthering his academic career, but realizes how much it would mean to him and gives Apu her savings and allows him to go. Apu grows and learns while Sarbajaya grows lonely and older. She hides her failing health from her son but quietly wishes he would return to see her. When he does return it is too late. Devastated, Apu ignores the urging to stay in the village and be a priest so he returns to Calcutta to perform the last rites for his mother. He will make something of himself even if no one will be there to see it.

MBDWOOF EC052

The final installment, Apur Sansar (a.k.a. The World of Apu) shifts all focus onto an older Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) as a poor graduate living in Calcutta. He sells his books to pay rent and he lazily searches for work to pay for university tuition and works on writing a novel based on his life. He meets an old friend, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), who must attend a cousin’s marriage and, not desiring to go alone, urges Apu to join him.

They travel to the village of Khulna for the ceremony where things do not go exactly as expected. As Satyajit Ray continues this exploration of the tragedy and beauty of the unexpected, the bridegroom shows up on time, but has a severe mental disorder so the bride and bride’s mother become extremely upset. The father and elders insist that their daughter, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), will be cursed if she does not marry on the appointed day. In their efforts to fix the doomed marriage, Pulu and the elders elect Apu as the replacement groom. Apu, disturbed by the sudden idea, finally agrees to marry Aparna (since his life isn’t really going anywhere else). Apu warns Aparna that he is very poor and although she is initially disappointed with their meager wages and shabby apartment, she does indeed fall in love with him.

apur sansar 7

The marriage actually gives Apu a wake-up call and he begins working as a cleric. He teaches his wife things that he learned in school. They write letters when they are apart and their love grows, but tragedy (naturally) strikes when the beautiful Aparna dies giving birth to their son while away. Apu rejects everything and runs away from the world. He hates the child he has never seen, but he sends money to his father-in-law to take care of him. Apu lets the wind take his manuscript as he releases it on a mountaintop and weeps. Life without his beloved Aparna is not worth living. Why would fate torment him like this?

After many years of forsaking his fatherly responsibilities Pulu finds him and urges Apu to see his son, Kajal, and father the boy (who is becoming quite wild in his grandfather’s care). After much convincing, Apu goes to retrieve his son from his father-in-law, but the boy does not think Apu is his father, but perhaps he may accept his confidence as a friend. They depart together to start a new life.

apur sansar 1

As the saga of Apu and the Ray family comes to a close and we dry the tears from our eyes and take a deep breath at the emotional depths these movies have taken us, we can pause and thank God for directors like Satyajit Ray. Pensive cinematography, shimmering sitar score composed by Ravi Shankar, close-ups loaded with emotion and thought, and the journey of one filmmaker are just a few reasons to find these movies and watch them. We see Satyajit Ray grow as a filmmaker and become more sure of humself with each new chapter in this beautiful trilogy. This experience really whet my appetite for more films of Satyajit Ray.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” January 30, 2010.