Picks: Highly Recommended Films
Minor Mishaps, dir. Annette K. Olesen (Denmark, 2002). A wonderful film! It moved slowly at first, as I tried to figure out the characters and their stories. In short, the film is about a father—newly widowed—and his three children (two girls and a boy). One of the secrets of the film is that this family is not close. Perhaps the mother kept them together; and now that she is gone, each is a planet in its own orbit. The father is the central character in the film—he always has a glint of humor and irony in his eyes. He is a good man, but a quiet man. The minor mishaps of the title are those transitions or crises in a family's life: the death of a parent, the potential break-up of a marriage, the eventual separation of adult children from their parent(s). The early scenes are filled with humor, pathos, and irony: a father drops his head into a plate of meat and potatoes to simulate a heart attack (and concludes, "Nobody has a sense of humor anymore"); the father tells his daughter, "Your mother was run over by a car—and the daughter stares at him as if her were a crazy person; and a funeral goes awry when the hearse does not show up on time. The dinner after the funeral reveals the family to be emotionally separated from one another. After that uncomfortable scene life goes on for this family. The director creates a set of transitional scenes that show the father and his three adult children carrying on—each in his or her own way.
The basic style of the film was the use of a handheld camera—usually with just enough movement to suggest documentary-style of filming. I think it was filmed in digital video and then transferred to 35 mm. At first the film is about how a family deals with grief. Life goes on, but in each case there are additional stresses and minor mishaps. A brother is confronted by a wife who tells him, "I have fallen in love." They face the fracture of their family relationship. A son is holding onto his contracting business by the skin of his teeth. His days are filled with stress, and his wife's personal and sexual demands are overwhelming him. An artist daughter is overwhelmed by a creative block and her manic personality. Only his youngest daughter, twenty-nine, seems to settle down into a routine of making dinner every night for dear old Dad. But even she has a secret—she is trying to meet a man through the personals column, and she is beginning a new job as caterer for a small accounting group. And one of the accountants clearly is attracted to her.
Sooner or later all paths lead to the father—his cuckolded brother shows up for a few days, his manic daughter visits to check up on him, and his youngest daughter remains at his side. Then comes the major plot twist that is not resolved until late in the film. The artist-daughter Marianne becomes persuaded that the close emotional relationship between Dad and the shy youngest daughter is actually an incestuous relationship. She believes her father is abusing his daughter, and she confronts her father with this accusation.
The impact of this accusation on the youngest daughter is perfectly realized. In a key scene she is faced with both her father and her new boyfriend (the accountant), and she turns both of them away. She needs to be alone in order to process this turn of events. The father generously yields to her request. If the film is about a well-integrated old person (the father), it is also about the moral and intellectual development of the youngest daughter. They perfectly complement one another. Eventually, the father confronts his artist-daughter and directly refutes the accusation of incest. Then, in a bizarre twist of events, his health becomes the focus of the family's concerns. In a great shot, we see the three children and his brother sitting in a row in a hallway at the hospital. Each grieves alone—not surprising, when one considers this family. Finally, we have the requisite family conference around the bedside. The father articulates the film's theme: "We can talk about minor mishaps, but not death." He is going to make it. The family is going to make it. And as the film ends, each of the family members comes to grip with his or her own minor mishap. Perhaps the resolutions are a bit too fully realized; still, the tensions set up earlier in the film provide for an expected release of energy. As one of the children says, "Good grief—this family!" The last scene provides a final twist of plot that is delightful, if a bit formulaic. The next-to-the last shot is a close-up, a reaction shot of the father, after he resolves his youngest daughter's need to find her own identity and pursue her own life.
Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, dir. Aparna Sen (India, 2002). I thoroughly enjoyed the unfolding relationship that was at the heart of this film. In one sense the film was made as a fable of how a country, India, needs to find a way to repair longtime strains between Hindus and Muslims. The meaning of the fable is expressed through the way the Muslim male lead interacts with the Hindu female lead. Some of the antecedents of this fable include the ongoing Kashmir conflict and the aftermath of the attack on New York City in September, 2001. But I'm not interested in using film for overt political aims. The fable has its reality; but the evolving relationship between the two main characters has another reality—one that remains with me long after viewing the film. The premise of the film: a lovely young high-caste Hindu mother (with her small child) journeys by bus from the north of India to take the train to Calcutta to return to her husband. Her parents are afraid of her making the journey alone (especially the bus part), and they stumble upon a well-known wildlife photographer when they arrive at the bus. So her parents ask the photographer, Raja, to watch over her on the ride. He accepts, and naturally he expresses no interest in the woman. After all, she is married, and he has his own life. But on the bus, the relationship begins to take root. They interact in the midst of an idiosyncratic bunch of characters—teenagers, adults, and elders. The actor Rahul Bose, who plays the Muslim photographer, has an amazingly calm and expressive face. He is the epitome of relaxed acting. His work in the film stole the show.
The early scenes are dominated by comedy. But then a crisis looms. Muslim extremists burned down Hindu homes in a village. Now Hindu extremists are cruising the highway and looking for revenge. The convoy of traffic, the bus included, is stopped. Hindu police tell everyone to stay on the bus. The two main characters are separated for a few moments, and when they are reunited, the police mistake the man for Mr. Iyer (the woman's husband). Mrs. Iyer is faced with a dilemma when Hindu extremists board the bus. Raja has told her he is Muslim; but now her initial shock has worn off. The extremists demand to know the names of certain passengers who look Muslim. One of the young men from the back of the bus calls out, "The two old people there are Muslims. We saw them praying." The old couple, the source of much good humor earlier in the film, are removed and taken away. Other men are made to stand up and show their scrotums—the uncircumcised would surely be Muslims. Mrs. Iyer hands her child to Raja and when the extremists ask his name, Mrs. Iyer supplies it (giving her husband's first name). After the extremist leave, the young man who fingered the old Muslim couple reveals that he is Jewish—and if he had been asked to drop his pants, he would have been taken away to his death.
Although the moral crisis in the scene was well depicted, the staging of the scene, the actors playing the extremists, the music used to support the scene—all were conventional and uninspiring. But the next scene is more original and creative. Raja leaves the bus to explore his surroundings. The director creates an interesting montage of photographs Raja shoots of the convoy, the setting, the people who have left their busses, and details of the scene: most poignant are the shots he takes of the old Muslim man's dentures and glasses left behind when the bodies were carried away.
Now the film cuts to the chase: Raja and Mrs. Iyer need to find a place to stay. The convoy is stuck, and the nearby town is under a curfew. The Hindu police officer—still under the assumption that they are man and wife—steps in to take them to a bungalow in a forest preserve. More comedy ensues (with the wiry caretaker of the bungalow), and I was reminded of the age-old screwball comedy formula as played out in It Happened One Night (1934) between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Most important, there is time now to develop the relationship between these two people. We watch the woman adapt to her circumstances; we revel in the beautiful scenes between the two when Raja takes photographs of her beautiful little boy. The scene showing her "dark night of the soul" reminded me of the best work of Satyajit Ray, especially the scene from The World of Apu, when Aparna finds herself stuck in a low-class apartment with her new husband—and finds a way to accept her new surroundings. The dialogue between them was believable and endearing. In one scene back in the village under curfew, the two tell the story of their "honeymoon" to some love-struck teens who were on the bus. I loved it! They share a special bond—they witness the horrors of extremism firsthand, and they survive it by sticking together. They make a perfect couple. But then there is the return to reality—the train to Calcutta. At one stop he leaves to get some coffee for them, and when he is gone, she turns to her little boy and says, "He's left us and gone." But he comes back. And at Calcutta, he turns her over to her waiting husband. He leaves with her a memento of their journey—the roll of film he took of her and her child in the forest preserve. The ending is perfect as an example of how to end a film about a relationship. No tricks are played; no strings are pulled. We are back in the real world. But person-by-person we can change based on our shared experiences. By the way: the child in the film was perfectly photographed to great advantage. And the music used for montages was sung in English by Indian singers. What does that tell us about the influence of American culture on India?