A Hero and an Antihero (This Is Not a Film, Yeralti)

On March 1, 2010, while making a movie in collaboration with Mohammad Rasoulof, Jafar Panahi was arrested and subsequently charged with making propaganda against the government of Iran. The following December, he was sentenced to six years in prison and forbidden to make any more films, write any screenplays, speak to the press, or leave the country for twenty years.¹ According to the Guardian, Panahi is currently “in a judicial phase known as ‘execution of the verdict,’ which means that his prison sentence can start at any moment.”² Nevertheless, since his conviction, Panahi has managed to make two movies on the sly. The first of these, This Is Not a Film (2011), which he co-directed with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, is a fictionalized account of one day in Panahi’s life in March, 2011, while he awaits the ruling of an appeals court regarding his conviction.

The movie begins with Panahi taping himself eating breakfast, feeding his pet iguana, and talking on the phone to his lawyer. After hanging up, he turns to the camera and says that what he’s shot so far is no good because he’s behaving like an actor. His next idea is to have Mirtahmasb, a documentary filmmaker, run the camera while he describes an unfilmed screenplay. Placing strips of yellow tape on a rug to represent the protagonist’s home, Panahi gives a walk through of the movie’s opening sequence before stopping again: “If I could tell a film, why make a film?” As the title suggests, the movie’s subject is Panahi’s inability to make a satisfying film given his current situation. So while his scenario sounds like it might’ve made a good movie, he’s correct when he says that reading the script is no substitute for the finished work. (Indeed, it’s a bit of a relief when he stops talking as I was beginning to worry that he was going to go through the entire story.) And whether he’s acting or not, watching Panahi sit in his apartment all day with nothing to do isn’t particularly interesting or revealing. To put it bluntly, the film is notable primarily as an act of defiance; as a movie, it strikes me as being rather thin.

The first thing one notices about Zeki Demirkubuz’s Yeralti (2012) is the deliberateness of the film’s style. Unlike many directors nowadays who employ handheld camerawork to create the impression of spontaneity, as if the camera operator didn’t know what the characters were going to do next (Panahi’s The Circle [2000] is one accomplished example), Demirkubuz frames his actors so carefully that, during a long restaurant scene in which the protagonist and three of his former classmates are seated at a round table, the director never has to move in for a close-up as the men in the foreground are positioned in such a way that they’re not obstructing our view of the characters further back. But while Demirkubuz seems to know exactly what he’s doing, his purpose in doing it is a mystery to me.

The film is loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground (1864) but moves the action from St. Petersburg in the 1840s to Ankara in the present. The protagonist, Muharrem (Engin Günaydın), is a spiteful, self-loathing civil servant who invites himself to a going away party for an old classmate, Cevat (Serhat Tutumluer), who’s headed to Istanbul to accept a literary prize. At the party, Muharrem makes an ass of himself and then follows his classmates to a brothel with the intention of slapping Cevat, who he thinks insulted him, but on arriving finds that they’ve given him the slip and spends the rest of the night with a prostitute (Nergis Öztürk). However, in lieu of the episode with the officer in the park, which doesn’t lend itself to being filmed, the movie adds a minor subplot about Muharrem throwing a potato through one of his neighbors’ windows when they play their music too loud, as well as a major subplot involving his cleaning woman (Nihal Yalçın), who’s having problems with her landlord, which has no equivalent in the book. In other words, Demirkubuz has found some creative solutions for adapting an unadaptable novel, but I’m not sure why a film was necessary in the first place. Needless to say, no movie could approximate the experience of reading the book (and what would be the point when we already have the original?); however, the film isn’t different enough from the novel to completely escape its shadow.

1. For more information about Panahi’s conviction, see Bordwell, David, “‘I Don’t Hate Anyone, Not Even My Interrogators’,” Observations on Film Art, December 21, 2010. Available online; accessed on March 28, 2013.
2. Brooks, Xan, “Jafar Panahi: Arrested, Banned, and Defying Iran With His New Film,” The Guardian, March 22, 2012. Available online; accessed on March 28, 2013.


Collected Tales (Bella addormentata, Tabu)

Marco Bellocchio’s first movie since Vincere (2009), Bella addormentata (2012) is a flawless example of routine filmmaking. Set over a few days in February, the story moves between several characters trying to save some one who’s beyond saving: an Italian senator (Toni Servillo) who’s called to Rome to vote on whether or not a woman who’s been in a coma for seventeen years should be taken off life support; the senator’s daughter, Maria (Alba Rohrwacher), and her new boyfriend, Roberto (Michele Riondino), whose mentally unstable brother (Fabrizio Falco) makes it difficult for him to have a relationship (he and Maria meet cute when the brother throws water in her face); a doctor (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) taking care of a suicidal drug addict, Rossa (Maya Sansa); and an aspiring actor (Brenno Placido) whose mother (Isabelle Huppert) has given up on her own acting career following a personal tragedy.

The movie’s crosscutting of parallel story lines and chronically under-lit cinematography both reminded me of Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (2010), but here there’s no grand coincidence to bring together the various threads and Bellocchio is slower to reveal key information about the characters. (When we see the actress praying early on, we’re led to believe that it’s for the woman in the coma, who’s been widely discussed in the news. It’s only much later that we find out that her prayers are for some one else.) But while the movie is elegantly constructed, the characters are all fairly generic. Flipping back and forth between different story lines, the film doesn’t have time to explain why, for instance, Rossa takes drugs or why the doctor is so determined to save her. In other words, the characters lack the specificity necessary to make them convincing.

Divided into two parts with a short prologue, Miguel Gomes’ Tabu (2012) consists of three largely self-contained stories about European colonialism as seen from the vantage point of the present. In the prologue, a 19th century explorer travels deeper and deeper into Africa in an attempt to escape his grief after the death of his wife. The next segment, “A Paradise Lost,” is set in Lisbon in the present and centers on a political activist, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), whose elderly neighbor, Aurora (Laura Soveral), is beginning to exhibit symptoms of dementia. The final segment, “Paradise,” takes place during the waning days of Portuguese rule in an unspecified African colony where Aurora (played as a young woman by Ana Moreira) spent her childhood and later had a passionate affair with Ventura (Carloto Cotta), a friend of her husband’s who played the drums in a rock ‘n’ roll band. All three stories are fascinating in their own right, but taken together they add up to something more than the sum of their parts.

The film’s title and chapter headings both allude to F.W. Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), although here the lost eden isn’t a tribal society untainted by the influence of modern capitalism but a white settler colony, and the doomed relationship between Aurora and Ventura is representative of colonialism in general: Looking back on it today, we can see that their days were numbered. The movie underscores this sense of historical hindsight by embedding the prologue and “Paradise” within the present-day narrative — the former as a film within the film; the latter as a story told to Pilar by Ventura (played as an old man by Henrique Espírito Santo) — and by loosely emulating the style of silent cinema. Although “Paradise” employs an offscreen narrator, foley effects, and several covers of Phil Spector-produced pop songs that are lip-synced by Ventura’s band, it doesn’t feature any direct sound; the characters move their lips but we can’t hear what they’re saying. Also, when Aurora shoots a man at the climax, we see her pull the trigger from Ventura’s point of view as he shields his face with his hands, the gaps between his fingers framing her face as in an iris shot. However, instead of treating Murnau’s film as a source to be plundered à la The Artist (2011), Gomes uses it as a historical marker to measure the distance between the colonial period and our own.