Daily Archives: June 4, 2008

Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside) (Spain/France/Italy 2004)

Rosa (Lola Dueñas) brings her children to meet Ramón (Javier Bardem)

Rosa (Lola Dueñas) brings her children to meet Ramón (Javier Bardem)

The Sea Inside is an example of a ‘big’ European film – a commercial and artistic success, directed by Alejandro Amenábar, the rising star of Spanish Cinema, and featuring a stand-out performance by one of Spain’s leading stars Javier Bardem. An estimated budget of €10 million makes The Sea Inside a ‘bigger’ film than most productions in other European countries (ahead of the UK average for a ‘domestic’ or non-Hollywood film of €6-7 million). In Spain, the film was seen by over 4 million people at the cinema and international recognition led to the award of Best Foreign Language film at the 2005 Oscar Awards. Outside Spain, however, the film was only a minor success in Germany, France and Italy and its UK performance was very disappointing.

This raises a number of possible questions. Is the film simply ‘too Spanish’? Is the subject matter not universal? Or is it the aesthetic approach to the film not one that appeals widely? Or is it simply that the distributors’ reluctance to promote this kind of film, especially with subtitles, meant that audiences were simply unaware of its qualities? Interestingly, the film did reasonably well in North America, especially around the time of its Oscar success. The reception of the film might also be viewed in the context of Amenábar’s previous film, the English language (but Spanish-produced) gothic ghost story, The Others, starring Nicole Kidman. The Others was a hit all around the world. Yes it was a popular genre film, but even so, we might question how much the popularity of that film rested on the willingness to accept Hollywood stars in an English-language film in most major markets (although it would be dubbed in some). One of the arguments about the ‘bigger’ European films is that they might work better in commercial terms if made in English.

(The notes that follow were written for the short run of The Sea Inside in April 2005 at Cubby Broccoli Cinema, at the National Media Museum.

Has any other filmmaker ever had such an auspicious beginning to a career as Alejandro Amenábar? Four films, four box office champs and four critical successes by age 32 – most of us would settle for just one. He writes, he directs, he produces, he composes the music and in this film he edits as well. Yet he seems a modest and personable young man (and one who values a strong team of collaborators). What is possibly even more remarkable is the way in which his cinematic vision has developed and matured so quickly. The first two films, Tesis (1996) and Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) (1997) were youthful genre pictures full of interesting ideas and demonstrating the potential for good technique. The Others (2001) showed a director able to take control over both the generic conventions of the gothic ghost story and a cast of children and leading actors, all in a second language. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising then that The Sea Inside is a masterly melodrama, beautiful to watch and enriching to experience on every level. There will be tears, but also gasps at the restraint with which a potentially sentimental subject is handled.

At the centre of the film is the performance by Javier Bardem. Following his earlier portrayal of a wheelchair-bound ex-policeman in Almodóvar’s Live Flesh, this great physical actor, in his youthful prime at 35, now plays the 54 year-old Ramón Sampedro – a quadriplegic following a diving accident in his twenties. Bardem’s expressions and facial gestures are complemented perfectly by the make-up techniques of Jo Allen. Surrounding Bardem is a fine supporting cast, many of whom have only limited experience in feature films. But this is not something we notice: the cast members work together as convincingly as any ensemble players who know their director well.

Like many of the great melodramas, The Sea Inside is shot in a CinemaScope ratio. The wide ’Scope frame allows compositions in which the recumbent Ramón can be seen together with his visitors – and often with a background shot of the landscape outside. A family melodrama is often contained within a single enclosed set, but the compositions here emphasise the wide emotional terrain. The cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe is one of the many strengths of the film and helps to open out what could become a claustrophobic drama.

Melodrama seems to be a dirty word for some critics, but cinephiles the world over recognise the attractions of the genre. There are many definitions of melodrama, but the ‘family melodrama’ deals centrally with the emotional relationships of a family group and expresses these via set design, acting, camerawork and music. All of these are integral to The Sea Inside. Traditionally, the equilibrium of the family is disturbed by the arrival of a stranger or a change in the behaviour of one of the family members – often associated with a social taboo.

Ramón has become the central focus of his family. His older brother loves him and recognises his duty to support him – but disagrees fundamentally with his legal fight to be allowed to end his life. His sister-in-law Manuela loves him too – perhaps too much – and devotes herself to his care. His nephew does everything he can, seeing his uncle as a man to respect and possibly using him as a role model to counteract his own father. Ramón’s father conspires with his grandson against his eldest son. Into Ramón’s life (and the family) come external figures. Two women fight for his attention and his love. Only the campaign activist, Gené, and her partner appear to be outside the complex of emotional relationships. Their relationship and the promise of their new family offer a life-enhancing contrast to the emotional turmoil around Ramón.

Music is central to the film as it must be to all melodramas. Ramón chooses opera as an important part of his enclosed world and Rosa plays records at the radio station as a means of communicating with him. Amenábar has again composed music to give texture to the memories and dreams that Ramón experiences – Celtic influenced music that conjures up the Galician landscape and the pounding of the sea. It will probably take several viewings to appreciate Amenábar’s creation of three separate themes: “Rosa the Celtic, Julia the symphonic and Ramón a mixture of both”.

Landscape and location
The film is clearly located in Galicia and Catalunya, two of the important ‘autonomous regions’ of Spain, far from Castillian Madrid. Perhaps this gives a particular twist to the debate about Spanish law. Certainly it provides distinctive ‘voices’ in the two languages. The main story is located in Galicia and it is here that the landscape becomes a player, not just the coastline, but the rainy valleys inland. At times, the flight (in his dreams) of Ramón across the landscape seems to recall the representations of landscape conjured up by Julio Medem in his films set further along the Atlantic coast in the Basque country. The emotional attachment to the land was further charged by filming on the same beach where Ramón suffered the diving injury that paralysed him and shooting scenes in chronological order to preserve the actor’s sense of the developing story.

Euthanasia and social issues
What is the film ‘about’ (i.e. apart from the family melodrama)? Ostensibly, this is a film about the right to die with dignity. The real-life Ramón Sampedro, on whose story the film narrative is based, spent 28 years fighting for the right to do what he wanted. Yet the film is never despairing or depressing. Indeed, as many commentators have noted, it is an uplifting film that could be seen as primarily about love and freedom. The title, The Sea Inside, comes from one of Ramón’s poems. Amenábar explains it in terms of the importance of the sea to Ramón – before the accident it gave him a life as a sailor, then it took that life away. But the idea of the sea is always with him and it offers the possibility of dreams, dark and mysterious – the very stuff of melodrama.

Amenábar’s themes
As a major new talent, it is inevitable that Amenábar will be discussed as an auteur. At first glance his four films seem very different. They all refer to different genres but they all focus on what it is to be human and to contemplate death. In Tesis, the graduate student, Ángela, investigates ‘snuff’ movies and finds herself caught up in a thriller narrative. In Open Your Eyes, César loses all sense of living ‘now’ and is unsure if he is alive, dreaming or dead. In The Others, Grace does not know she is dead and refuses to accept the possibility. Ramón finds himself in another scenario where he contemplates death from a position that is both in and outside the living world around him..

The Sea Inside was the winner of the ‘Foreign Language Film’ Oscar in 2005 and it is surprising that Javier Bardem did not receive even a nomination for his performance (although Jo Allen was nominated for her makeup skills). Like it’s predecessors, the film was the Spanish box office champion, easily out-performing Almodóvar’s Bad Education – which has been a much bigger hit in the UK and the US. Perhaps The Sea Inside is ‘too Spanish’ in some way, with Amenábar seeking to appease his Spanish critics for making The Others in English? I’m not sure, but I hope as many people as possible get to see this marvellous film and to make up their own minds.

Roy Stafford 8/4/05

Since The Sea Inside, Alejandro Amenábar has not publicly announced any further work. Perhaps he is just taking a well-earned rest. Whenever he does re-emerge with a property of some kind, there is sure to be plenty of interest. Javier Bardem has several films due for release in the next couple of years. Love in the Time of Cholera (2007) is an adaptation of the Gabriel Garcia Márquez novel to be directed by Mike Newell for New Line. Bardem is part of a mixed Hispanic/Anglo cast and the film is in English. Bardem also appears as the lead in Goya’s Ghosts (2006), – a Spanish film made in English by Milos Forman – and he is listed in a major role for the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, again in 2007 and in English.

Hollywood is finally beginning to realise that it shares a language with Spain (and Mexico) and this is likely to mean that major Spanish filmmakers may well look West rather than to the rest of Europe. In this respect, they are potentially involved in relationships similar to those enjoyed by French and Italian filmmakers in the 1960s.

Roy Stafford 28/1/07

Alejandro Amenábar is now scheduled to work on Agora, an epic set in Roman controlled Egypt. It is shooting with a budget of €50 million in Malta. The film is written by Amenábar’s usual writing partner Mateo Gil and stars Rachel Weisz.

At Five in the Afternoon (Iran/France 2003)

Samira Makhmalbaf (right) with actor Agheleh Rezaie and Marziyeh Meshkin

At Five in the Afternoon is an Iranian film made in Afghanistan. A young woman and her parents arrive in ruined Kabul. The young woman attends a newly opened school and she takes part in an exercise in which she argues her case to become the next president of the country. She meets various people, including a photographer, a poet and a French peacekeeping soldier. Her conservative father is troubled by his daughter’s assertiveness. When she is out of his sight, she lifts her veil and puts on a pair of Western court shoes.

Samira Makhmalbaf is currently the most visible member of the formidable Makhmalbaf Film House – the Iranian family of filmmakers. At Five in the Afternoon is her third feature and the second to win a prize at Cannes (after Blackboards in 2000). Ms Makhmalbaf was just 18 when she first presented The Apple (1998) to international audiences at various festivals. She also contributed one of the episodes to 11″9’01 (2003), the compendium film focusing on 9/11.

The Makhmalbaf family work together, with Samira and her younger sister, brother and stepmother learning from the established filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. All of them contributed in different ways to At Five in the Afternoon, but the film clearly bears the stamp of Samira.

All of the Makhmalbaf Film House productions appear to draw upon the approaches developed in Italian neo-realist cinema in the 1940s. They develop stories from the reality of people’s lives (rather than writing stories in order to create something to say) and they generally use ‘non-professionals’. These were two of the precepts adopted by Roberto Rossellini. At Five in the Afternoon sometimes resembles the Italian postwar films, with refugees and survivors of the war struggling to find food and shelter amongst the ruined buildings. Samira Makhmalbaf refers to this approach as allowing her to represent the ‘spirit’ of the people of Afghanistan – in direct contrast to the representations constructed by the global media such as CNN:

Basically, radio, TV and satellites are the official voice of regimes and powerful authorities but cinema is the only broadcast medium where the author voices the spirit of nations without any tribune. We understand the spirit of India from Satiyajit Ray’s films, not from musical video clips on satellite TV. Ken Loach presents the spirit of the British people, while the BBC or Tony Blair can only be the spokespersons of England’s official policies. (Cannes interview on www.makhmalbaf.com)

Perhaps it is her father’s teaching or perhaps she has developed her own sense of what it means to be a cinema auteur, aware of the political nature of the medium and the possibilities for individual expression. In answer to a question about whether or not the film is a ‘realistic portrayal’ of contemporary Afghanistan she says:

Godard says that at first cinema was for showing reality but now it has led to entertainment. In the film I tried as much as possible not to entertain – contrary to the style so much a part of the media – but also avoided passing any type of judgment. In that sense this film is similar to The Apple. I have tried to understand a father who is a supporter of the Taliban and their culture and a girl who opposes that culture and depict what exists not at present but what I prefer to exist.

I chose the film’s characters among ordinary people and got the film’s details from their lives. I picked up much of the dialogue while searching for actors and locations and from what I heard from ordinary people in the streets or markets and re-enacted them in the film. In contrast to those who are used to simplify complex matters I haven’t tried to blame the Taliban for all the problems or with their fall, like the American reportage, portray a non-existent well being after the conquest of Afghanistan by Rambo.

This film aims to understand and show the mystery of this region’s backwardness and the hidden war between the two generations of the past and present and the differences that exist between men and women’s situations.

As far as the realities of Afghanistan are concerned, this film is quite realistic in my opinion. On the one hand it also looks at the poetic side of cinema and not because one of the characters is a poet and reads a poem in the film. (Cannes interview ibid.)

This is an eloquent statement about an approach which combines ideas from neo-realism with elements of surrealism or perhaps ‘magic realism’ – a combination also identifiable in films by Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar 2000) and his second wife Marziyeh Meshkini (The Day I Became a Woman 2000). Samira Makhmalbaf knows Afghanistan from early experiences with her father’s productions and in her previous film she worked across another Iranian border in Kurdistan. She is able to find the actors and create the dialogue, almost from an ‘insider’s position’. Several commentators have suggested that she shoots in a documentary style. Yet she also chooses the incidents in the story and the locations so that they present poetic or perhaps symbolic images rather than something resembling a newsreel. The different feel that this gives the film is central to its message.

There are three broad categories of image in the film. Conversations or dialogues are conducted by characters shown in medium close-up and often facing the camera (without actually looking out towards the audience). This works particularly well when the central character Noqreh lifts her veil to speak, often amongst other women who are still covered. A complementary shot is the close-up of Noqreh’s feet as she slips between her workaday slippers and the white court shoes with a floral bow and a low heel. We spend some time following these feet across the ruined streets of Kabul. We are also offered a link to her father as we watch him washing his head and feet.

These shots are contrasted with the long shots of the environments of the characters, including the ruined palace, the wreck of an aircraft and other abandoned buildings. These shots are at once ‘realist’ with the crowds in dusty streets and ‘surrealist’ in the compositions of the women in blue-green burqas and umbrellas. Sometimes, they become symbolic as the motorised rickshaw passes the horse and cart.

The long shots also provide the means to move the narrative along in a series of long tracking or ‘travelling’ shots as we follow Noqreh through the city and across the desert, often with the high mountains on the horizon line.

A female perspective?
Samira Makhmalbaf, her younger sister and stepmother represent an unusual group of women directors in a society that has been reluctant to allow women to express themselves through the variety of media available to women in Europe and North America. How important is gender in influencing the ways in which Samira chooses to show the women of Afghanistan? There are practical advantages for a woman director working in Afghanistan and Samira does on occasion operate the camera (although the crew list shows a male sound recordist). Although Samira wrote the screenplay, the original story idea was her father’s. Making links between the material captured by the camera and the creative talent behind it is not straightforward. This is why the concept of ‘representation’ has so fascinated film and media theorists. Nevertheless, the public appearances of an eloquent and impassioned young woman filmmaker such as Samira Makhmalbaf must have some effects upon the reception of her film by audiences.

The heart of the film is in the way in which Noqreh moves between the interaction with her father and sister-in-law (the traditional Afghanistan) and a very different interaction with the poet and the soldier (the prospect of democracy in Afghanistan). The sequences in the school are somewhere between the two. There are several occasions when the struggle to define the possibilities for Afghan society are encapsulated in specific actions – e.g. when the photographer tells Noqreh to pull down her veil. He believes that this image of the ‘covered woman’ is the correct one for a candidate for the presidency.

The meeting with the French soldier (a consequence of the co-production deal?) enables the filmmakers to pose questions to a Western audience. What do we really understand as ‘democracy’? Is the soldier’s ignorance of or indifference towards how his president is elected very different to the Father’s reverence for a traditional Afghani way of life? Massoud Mehrabi (see web resource below) suggests that the search for water – always in short supply – is a symbol for the search for democracy. He notes that the water that is desperately needed to keep the baby alive is used by the Father for washing – cleanliness is more important than survival.

The poet appears to represent the sophisticated (optimistic?) view of what could happen in the new Afghanistan. How is this linked to the choice of Lorca’s poem about the bullfight for the title of the film and its opening and closing lines? The more you think about these ideas, the more the film becomes an intriguing commentary on “the new world order”. How must it feel to be an Iranian filmmaker, at odds with your own government, watching the Americans misunderstanding and threatening the futures of your neighbours in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Useful web resources

Interview with Samira Makhmalbaf by Sally Vincent
Article on the Makhmalbaf family by Hannah McGill in Sight and Sound, April 2004
Review by Massoud Mehrabi, Iranian film writer (in English)
Makhmalbaf Film House – a treasure house of interviews, articles, reviews, images compiled by the family and its collaborators.

Questions for discussion

1. How helpful is the suggestion that At 5 in the Afternoon employs both ‘realism’ and ‘surrealism’ in representing the new Afghanistan?

2. What did the film say to you about the possibilities for the future in Afghanistan? Which were the important scenes for you?

3. Do you think the gender of the filmmaker was important in the way the story developed and the ways in which characters were shown by the camera? Can you quote any examples?

4. Samira Makhmalbaf clearly believes that her film has a political purpose. How would you describe that purpose and do you think that she succeeds?

Roy Stafford 3/3/05

(These notes are a slightly adapted version of materials written for a screening of the film at Cornerhouse Cinema, Manchester in 2004)

Solaris (USSR 1972)

Kris and his wife (or is she?) on Solaris

Solaris is one of the films offered for critical study on the WJEC A Level Film Studies course. The notes below were written for a course on ‘Speculative Fiction’ in 2001.

The novel Solaris by Stanislaw Lem was published in 1961 and as such stands as a much more sophisticated narrative than most Western science fiction could manage at the time. Lem wrote as a Pole and although familiar with Western SF also drew on the ‘philosophical writers’ of Eastern Europe such as Franz Kafka. The first English language translation of the novel appeared in 1970. The Russian film version followed in 1972 and as such was taken to be a riposte to Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey, even though it drew upon a novel already ten years old.

According to some sources, director Andrei Tarkovsky did not involve Lem in the screenplay of the film. The screenplay adds sequences that refer directly to Earth and the origins of the protagonist Kris Kelvin and his family home, a familiar image from other Soviet directors such as Dovzhenko. The novel is set completely in space.

Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-86)
Tarkovsky was one of the few post Second World War Soviet directors to gain international recognition. His first three features after leaving film school (he had previously studied Arabic and worked as a geologist, unusual experiences for a filmmaker) all gained major international prizes. Solaris was his third film, but the first to get a UK release. It was followed into release by his second film Andrei Roublev, the story of a legendary icon painter which had difficulty in obtaining an export licence.
Tarkovsky went on to make The Mirror (1974) and Stalker (1979) (also a science fiction influenced narrative) in the Soviet Union before moving abroad for three more films before his death from cancer aged 54.
Tarkovsky’s method tended to eschew ‘montage’ and to use relatively slowly paced long takes in a process of ‘sculpting time’. This became more pronounced in his later films which tended to attract small, but very enthusiastic audiences. In his later career Tarkovsky became synonymous with the popular view of the arthouse director, but Solaris represents a more accessible work.

The film and the book

Lem’s book is a classic of science fiction and Tarkovsky stays fairly close to the narrative of events aboard the space station. The main difference between the two narratives is the concentration in the novel on a satire of academic research – Kris refers to a series of theoretical ideas about the planet Solaris. Tarkovsky is more interested in the impact of the planet and its ‘living ocean’ on Kris himself. Although obviously taken with Lem’s story, Tarkovsky wanted to use the visual and aural power of cinema to the full. Even so, he maintains the central focus of the novel – the metaphysical questions about science and conscience – rather than developing the narrative into a mystery or a thriller. In this sense, Solaris represents a genuine attempt to create an ‘sf’ film.

The novel is currently in print and a ‘study guide’ can be found on the website at: http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/science_fiction/solaris.html

Alien contact

Solaris, both as novel and film, belongs to one of the major narrative groups of science fiction – stories about the first contact between human beings and aliens. Such stories can be divided into two groups. The ‘alien invasion’ group sees Earth visited by aliens, who are usually portrayed as aggressive and are ultimately defeated through the application of specifically ‘human’ knowledge and personal qualities. These stories were introduced by H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The second group, common since Flash Gordon battled Ming the Merciless, sees humans meeting aliens in space.
In both groups of stories the emphasis is on the humans’ response to an alien ‘threat’ (although occasionally the aliens are benign). It has been argued that the difference in Solaris is that more time is spent on the question of how both human and alien intelligence feel and then react to the meeting. How does the alien intelligence react to encounters with humans? How can human cultural activity explore such issues? Tarkovsky links this question to that of the ‘second chance’ – having your time again.

The following extract from the detailed website operated by ‘Underman’ (I have no idea who s/he is, but the site is well worth exploring) summarises Tarkovsky’s approach:

In 1973, the year after the completion of Solaris, Tarkovsky spoke about the film with a Russian interviewer, Z. Podguzhets. The text appears in Kitty Hunter-Blair’s book, named in the footnote to this section. This is my summary of part of the text. Please note, I use “man” here in a generic, not gender, sense.

As Tarkovsky read it, the key to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris was not the technological sophistication represented by space travel, but “the moral problems evident in the relationship between Kelvin and his conscience”. The spiritual implications of technology were more important to Tarkovsky than the technology itself. He described two opposing forces influencing man: one, a yearning for complete moral freedom; two, the search for meaning in his own existence. The inevitable result was a deep inner conflict and a battle with conscience, which Lem expressed through the relationship between Kelvin and his wife, Rheya, summoned back to physical form in station Solaris. Surrounded as he is by the ultimate products of technological achievement, with which he pursues his urge to explore the universe, Kelvin can do nothing to avoid coming face to face with the implications of his own past actions.

Kelvin can never distance himself from the forces that shaped his own development. However far he journeys, he will ultimately be drawn back to his own roots. Even at the limits of human endurance, Kelvin is a creature of the earth and the people who gave him existence. The dream of returning home and eradicating the mistakes of his past lies at the core of Kelvin’s being, but it takes an alien intelligence to perceive the dream.

Yet that alien intelligence, too, is subject to whatever laws may govern the universe. The inescapable fate bestowed by a spiritual, moral existence is to live with the conscience that arises from the actions a person takes, with no prospect of a second chance. Kelvin’s ultimate destiny is to return to the place where he was born. He can go nowhere else.

http://www.underview.com/2001/solaris.html (Unfortunately, this link is no longer valid – does anyone know if the text is available elsewhere?)

Time Within Time – The Diaries 1970-1986, Andrey Tarkovsky, translator Kitty Hunter- Blair, Faber and Faber, London, 1994.

Tarkovsky and the film critics

Film critics generally, and certainly in 1972 when Solaris was released, are often dismissive of science fiction. In Sight and Sound Spring 1973, the veteran film scholar Ivor Montagu celebrates the arrival of Tarkovsky’s films in the UK, but sees Solaris as the weakest, partly because it fails to represent scientists or science and instead concentrates on the personal. Tony Rayns in Monthly Film Bulletin of June 1973 refers to ‘kindergarten psychology’ and dismisses the film. Rayns suggests that 2001 was ‘totalitarian’ and Solaris is ‘humanist’, but where Kubrick was at least ‘visionary’, Tarkovsky is ‘merely reactionary’. However, Philip Strick, one of the few film critics with a detailed knowledge of science fiction claims that Solaris is:

“… the nearest the cinema has come to capturing the complexities of modern science fiction, with its intermingling of time and memory, acute uneasiness, and emphasis on elegance and style.” (Strick, Sight and Sound Winter 1972/3)

Solaris provides us with a chance to discuss what kinds of questions science fiction can ask when it is not being ‘predictive’. These may indeed turn out to be philosophical, and even spiritual, rather than ‘scientific’.

Roy Stafford 29 October 2001