very detailed and nuanced - if not a highly cerebral (wink wink :-))- review of the film. as someone with very little knowledge about cinema and its visual grammar, i learnt a lot from your review. thanks.
from what i understand, the expressionist tradition in cinema wants to highlight/emphasize the inner subjective experience/turmoil of characters, and cares more about the visual projection of inner experience. And in order to do this, it often purposefully distorts the surface reality to underscore a particular point. Movies like Faust, Metropolis and Nosferatu comes immediately to mind - philosophical theme, existential, filled with harsh streaks of light & shadows, silhouettes, asymmetries etc.
but an expressionist cinema needs a framework of distortion/exaggeration - say something like gothic (or even baroque or victorian). it cannot operate well within a 'minimalist' framework. kadal, as you rightly pointed out, is out and out expressionist cinema, but it is trying to operate within a minimalist vein. and honestly, i don't know how well this has worked out. maybe the formatic constraints of cinema (e.g length, limits in no. of scenes etc.) had forced Mani to adopt this and i'm not knowledgeable enough to comment on this. but as a viewer, i somehow had this feeling that in trying hard to be minimalist and NOT to be preachy or melodramatic, the intensity of the story did not come through fully well. while the movie did have some very intense scenes - most of which will be remembered for a long time (e.g. the initial burial, the tape recorder scene, crucification, Fr. Sam building a statue, redemption scene) - the intensity and turmoil inherent in the story/narrative did not come out well. again, this is a personal opinion from a cinema illiterate.
For instance, "witnessing of the birth" scene is a high point in the movie. But seconds after Thomas comes out of Davidan's hut and stands at the backdrop of the Prussian blue sky, there was a cut. The very next scene was orchestrated to be more levitious, where he gets teased by a friend ("thommai, unnai ethaavadhu kotti pidichirukha? thommai kotti, thommai kotti etc."). While one could draw cerebral analogies to koti/ghost & beatrice/angel, this scene did indeed tremendously bring down the emotional height and impact of the previous scene. My minimal knowledge of cinema makes me unable to comprehend why there should be a cut seconds after Thomas coming out of Davidan's hut, thereby breaking the scenes' unity and emotional flow? Is it because of the concern that people/critics will think of that scene as not minimalist, but instead, as melodramatic - had it continued on its emotional path? I don't know.
Similarly, while the the "betrayal" that Fr. Sam feels and the crucification-like scene that follows is most wonderfully shot, the betrayal that Thomas feels after this scene felt very rushed. Even as the camera moves further and further away from him, I somehow couldn't feel his sense of immense desolation and abandonment - his Christ taken away from him -, but instead, only his anger and rage. And his seduction into sin too happened so quick that one couldn't feel any emotional connection to it. While I do agree that the "magudi magudi" background was very appropriate for Thomas's seduction into sin, I didn't feel that "shiver-up-the-spine" that one goes through when one witness a prodigal sons downfall. When Je narrated this story, I imagined this to be similar to Giridharan's (- from the "Kaadu" novel -) downfall. I instantly started to tremble thinking how immensely powerful this would be in visuals. But the visuals and the fast cuts were too quick for me to establish any emotional resonance. One could only imagine so much, and not beyond!
To do justice to a story of this epic scale, i think a screen time of at least three hours or so is needed. Personally, I would have loved to see more of Fr. Sam's character fleshed out on screen - especially his obtainment of moral stature and respect within the village.
And I had the same thought that the painting-like angelic embrace of Thomas by Beatrice should have been an apt end to the hospital scene - maybe even for the movie itself. And I didn't expect Fr. Sam literally sing "Anbin Vasalilae". That was little bit of a letdown. I visualized it as a choir sung outside - at the backdrop of the Church -, gradually transitioning to a celebratory procession around and towards the Sea.
I still feel that the movie had some brilliant moments - The Sky. And Fr. Sam building that statue in mud and clay... A statue that just embrace. And Thomas entering into the frame. Into the embrace. And in the later scene, there is a juxtaposition of Thomas with the statue... As he gets momentarily lost and mesmerized by the unspoken kindness emanating from the Devakumaran's face, the recording starts to play "koodura payale, naara payalae, adichu mandaya odaichiruvenlae..". Wonderfully done and immensely moving.
It is moments like these that one would expect from a Mani + Je combination. While such moments are certainly there in the movie, the intensity and the sea of turmoil that is inherent in the narrative did not come out all that well.
(As a side note, the Herzog quote seems rather misplaced. What he meant was that 'a film should be looked straight on - based on the raw, visceral emotional connection it makes with the viewers - and thus, it is not an art of scholars, but that of illiterates'. So, trying to decipher the allegories and images embedded in a frame, and talking about how the characters are placed on the positive and negative end of the screen is as cerebral an exercise as someone who tries to deconstruct a film to unpack its political motifs. While I do resonate with the larger point you're trying to make, I'm also equally confused because one set of folks(and film makers) say that it is because of the inability of the (tamil) audience to understand a simple visual/image that everything needs to be made so explicit, while you and few others say that cinema is a way of communicating through images and is not a cerebral exercise!)
Dear Mr. Arvind karunakaran,
I have never argued over a movie before, nor have I wanted to, as I think the artistic experience of cinema is as subjective as any other art form. It cannot be more clear than the way we looked at this film, particularly the scene you have mentioned("witnessing the birth"). I remember talking to my friend about it with great admiration. This particular scene best reveals movie's format, that is, expressionist characters and sequences embedded in realistic framework.
If one observes expressionist film genre even the early ones like Murnau's classics one might find two kinds of movies, those which plays as expressionist melodrama throughout(Faust), other being composed of a realistic setting where expressionist characters and sequences are brought in(Nosferatu). The former has severe plot limitations as audience might find it emotionally distant and lacking identity. Apart from early audacious silent films this type is generally disowned, though it somehow survives in surrealist film genre which aren't hesitant to call attention to their making. The later kind played out to be perfect format for expressionist films and are made now and then. Their technique is to use a realistic setting as a background and smuggle expressionist images in the name of melodrama to startle the viewers by contrast.
Take for instance a Scene in Nosferatu, after his first night in Nosferatu's castle Harker wakes up in the morning to find everything normal, totally unlike the strange previous night. The only characters in the film that seem out of real are Nosferatu, Renfield and Dr.Van Helsing. This format works as while we invest ourselves in other characters or the same characters in realistic sequences, the expressionism can be used to shock us with its audacious images. Consider movie 'Night of the hunter', the old women who takes care of the kids seem perfectly normal,realistic. She is not melodramatic showing her affection to the children, she as menacing as any loving mother, until she stands up against the villain with a shot gun silhouetting across the screen. Kadal uses a the similar format. There is a huge difference between realism and minimalism. Minimalism is showing as less as possible to communicate the idea with least distraction. It isn't about shot length or film's subject but having complete artistic control over characterization, plot, objects on the frame(setting), acting, music (some of the directors use familiar music which has boiled down to fixed imagery) and so on to see to it that there is no distraction from the idea to be communicated. It can sometimes actually mean showing these narrowed down cinematic ideas for longer period of time. The framework of Kadal is not minimalist but naturalist or realistic. Extended shot length could be a distraction from its realistic setup calling attention to its making, I think the images are given reasonable time to communicate. One might recall that the most affecting visuals of 'Nosferatu' are only few seconds long.
|Stanley Kubrick a well known minimalist|
For instance Minimalist way of dealing with "witnessing the birth" scene would be cutting straight to next scene. This does not happen as the scene goes on to add more, more about how Thomas's friend sees it, in the process bring down the film's trend back its realistic framework as Thomas starts to sing along with him. It is as if he's been to another place and have come back to real world and by providing this glimpse of realism we realize, Boy what a place he has been in! And this transition takes place with at most ease. Had it been continued with dialogues like 'I have witnessed birth of Jesus','I would never sin again' or any other dialogue for that matter or if the friend would have reacted with an exclamation the sequence would have turned melodramatic, which is the last thing thing any movie lover would want to have in this movie.
Melodrama in Tamil cinema is, in my opinion, a cheap trick used by artistically untalented afraid to try out artistic tools cinema offers and opting to imitate safe familiar tools of drama. Tamil cinema has almost always taken this safe path. Without visual imagination even a well acted melodrama has artistically no reason to exist as cinema even though I enjoy them , perhaps drama.
My interpretations on the film in the article are most spontaneous, sometimes unconscious, associations that I had made as I was watching the film(I have watched it only once). My review is the process of trying to find the reason behind these images being so effective. As I was watching Fr. Sam getting beaten up, crucifixion was the first think that came to my mind as I was previously supplied with innumerous images of Christ archetype before. I didn't have to sit through shot by shot to breakdown their symbolism. For example take "witnessing the birth" there are two images that affected me greatly, having discussed one before(Thomas’ palms stained with ‘Holy Blood’ with bright sky as the background), I would try to explain my method reviewing the other one which has Thomas hold the baby with tears in his eyes, now knowing that this shot/image affected me greatly I try to probe the reason behind it. It might be the unconscious association I had made with familiar Christ archetype of Mary holding infant Jesus. Then I look at the reason behind my unconscious making such an association and I find similarity in position of the baby on the right hand side from our point of view, the holders direction of gaze.
Of course, I review the movie cerebrally, that is the only way to do it, but I don't watch it that way. I don't expect every viewer to go beyond the first step, that is left for a reviewer. I watch movies patiently observant without preconceived notions to let affecting images seep through and that is exactly what I want viewers to do. //one set of folks(and film makers) say that it is because of the inability of the (tamil) audience to understand a simple visual/image that everything needs to be made so explicit// I would be the first person to offend such a statement and I would rephrase it as 'one set of folks(and film makers) say that it is because of the impatience of the (tamil) audience to let a simple visual/image to affect them that everything needs to be made so explicitly melodramatic' . Coming back to films format, I would have hated to have this sequence overdrawn into melodrama after these affecting visuals, with dialogues like Thomas saying 'I felt like Mary, holding infant Jesus' . What a let down it is, to hear unrealistic dialogue to communicate an idea when you have most powerful visual media in hands. I cannot comment on personal preferences as it is subjective, in the sense I cannot make one feel what what one didn't but I think this sequence as one of the most successful.
|Scorsese's Goodfellas a movie with similar approach|
/And I had the same thought that the painting-like angelic embrace of Thomas by Beatrice should have been an apt end to the hospital scene - maybe even for the movie itself. And I didn't expect Fr. Sam literally sing "Anbin Vasalilae". That was little bit of a letdown. I visualized it as a choir sung outside - at the backdrop of the Church -, gradually transitioning to a celebratory procession around and towards the Sea.// My criticisms on the movie was entirely with reference to the movie itself. I felt that above scene is inadequate or distracting to communicate what I felt it intends to. I wouldn't criticize a movie in the middle of its creative process (with reference to the screenplay). Cinema is not an art of individual though it is a vision of one and I think it is an insult to a movie maker to criticize him for contradictions from our imagination. It is similar to getting access into a writer's imagination somehow and criticizing his work as being not as powerful.
I wouldn't want continue arguing about this movie or any movies in future. Though I think I am man (boy) of superior taste when it comes to movies I have reserved my temptation writing movie reviews. I wrote this in such desperation after finding not a single review that the movie deserves. I wrote this with only one viewer in my mind, the director, that he shouldn't lose hope in his art or audience.
I have added a few words in red to suit the comment below better