Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Diary and remembrance

On the weekend I chanced to see two classic films by the greatest masters of European cinema: "Diary of a chambermaid" by Luis Bunuel and "Amarcord" by Federico Fellini.

The former was something a of a disappointment, despite being filmed beautifully and in very crisp black-and-white. A gorgeous chambermaid, played by Jeanne Moreau (trademark: a very French downturn of the lips, giving her a simultaneously sexy and scornful expression) goes to work for a wealthy lady in the countryside. Quite expectedly the lady's father, husband, horse-carriage driver and neighbour all fall for the maid and pursue her in a variety of mostly repulsive ways. In this situation, and being the star character in the movie, you would expect Ms Moreau to make some kind of statement about herself -- but no, she seems to be a dithering soul fairly willing to take on any and all of the men. Her sneering expression never falters, except when she's allowed to display a tiny spark of emotion over a young orphan girl who is raped and murdered.

"Amarcord" turned out to be something else altogether. I've seen it before, of course, but was not prepared for the impact it would make on me this time. From the chaotic opening scene depicting Italy's version of our "Holika dahan", to the exploits and emotions of a family, to the sexual obsessions of schoolboys, and with an unbearably sad wedding scene in conclusion, this movie masterfully plays out the life and times of a village in Eastern Italy, adding just the bare minimum of bizarre Fellini-esque characters and scenes.

Two hallmarks of the direction struck me powerfully this time: (i) a number of scenes are so short you almost don't believe they happened, like comments or footnotes in a diary, and for this reason they have a profound impact on the viewer, (ii) in some scenes the characters seem to be each in his/her own world even as they interact with each other, the camera following them around and powerfully conveying how much of our lives goes on in our own minds.

The final wedding scene is unique: for what is supposed to be a happy event, it's set in a "shamiana" against a stark, dreary landscape, and the overwhelming feeling is of loss and parting from the people one knows. The scene gradually winds down, becoming more and more stark and depressing, as various characters drift away. The few who linger dance slowly in the twilight as the blind man plays his accordion. Amazing.

I recall the sensation when Amarcord was first screened in Bombay - after some censorship, mainly to edit out the gigantic breasts of the tobacconist. I wasn't allowed to see the movie then, as it was for "Adults only". For some days everyone was talking about it, mostly because of its frequent and sometimes crude references to sex. I remember my parents going to see it, they were cautiously positive when they returned but a lot of others including journalists ranted about how it was boring and slow and there was "no story".

The sub-theme of growing fascism enriches both movies, but in "Chambermaid" it's mainly limited to a couple of Nazis plotting their propaganda and making racist remarks about Jews. Instead, in "Amarcord", the personal horror comes alive as Aurelio, the childlike old man with an instinct for what is right, is hounded by the fascist police and made to drink castor oil.

Notwithstanding anything I said above, Bunuel is a brilliant director, though I think I liked his early Spanish-language films better ("Viridiana", "Nazarin"). Fellini is... well, Fellini. What can one even say!

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