Life And Letters
Some Festival Films
By SHAM LAL
OVER-EXPOSURE to the cinema has its hazards. Few can take in four or five pictures every day for a fortnight and keep their wits. But this is precisely what film critics have to do during an international film festival. The strain tells on the memory, the images get mixed up and impressions which are clear and sharp at the time of viewing are soon blurred. It is easier for cinema buffs who can be more choosy but even viewing a dozen pictures, each with its own distinct idiom and its visual rhythm in aas many days, can wear out the sensibility.
The made scrabmle for tickets during the Delhi festival which is just about to end tells its own story. Those who take the trouble of standing in long queues to get their seats booked in advance are not all voyeurs. There are thousands of persons in every metropolitan city who know the work of at least a few avant-grade directors and are keen to see their new films and get an idea of what the more promising of the younger directors are doing to explore new areas of experience or new possibilities of the medium. They know that seeing a Bergman and a Fellini on the same day is not the best way of absorbing either of them. If they do so it is because most festival films are not likely to be shown later in any public theatre here.
Though the country has held eight international film festivals so far, the opportunities for seeing new direction in films from abroad remain as meagre as they were thirty years ago. Even at the time of the first festival when the works of Rossellini and De Sica came as a revelation to cinemagoers, there was loud talk of ending Hollywood's sway over the exhibition circuit for foreign pictures but nothing came of it. That the government is unable to persuade the big exhibitors to import pictures which in their view will not hold the interest of a mass audience is not surprising. What is surprising is that it has done little to build a network of small theatres where not only significant films from abroad but offbeat pictures produced by local directors can be shown on a regular basis or to set up libraries of such films as a stimulus to the film society movement in the big towns.
This is not to decry the policy of holding film festivals which after all are the only occasion when those interested in the cinema get to know what is being done abroad. It is rather to stress the need for a more active policy of exposing cinemagoers to the winds of change in the film world abroad and keeping cinema workers here in touch with new deverlopments in the film language and syntax elsewhere. Most of those who regard cinema studios as dream factories meant to turn out pictures, which give-the city people a two-hour escape from the drabness of their daily life, may not have much use for such exposure. But there are quite a few young directors, particularly in the regional languages, who are forced to work on a lean budget and are anxious to strike a new path. They at least will be reassured to find that even today it is directors in small countries, with only limited funds at their disposal, who are doing more to extend the boundaries of the cinema than the more successful of their colleagues who are too timid or too square to think in terms of a personal style, much less a personal philosophy.
What has been most revealing about this festival is the way in which some directors in Eastern Europe are trying to overcome the constraints of official control and render in cinematic terms, a personal vision. This is most marked in Tarkovsky's. The Stalker Those who look at the tormented faces of the guide and the two men, a writer and a professor, whom he is leading to the spot in the mystery zone where all their wishes will be fulfilled, and listen to the guide's warning that any deviation from the straight and narrow path which he alone knows can mean death, will at once grasp the meaning of the parable which the young Soviet director has turned into a film of great power. The Stalker is none else but the great leader who alone knows the correct line which leads to the final goal, and the mysterious zone is nothing else but the utopia in which all class divisions will disolve into thin air, the state will wither away, labour will be rid of the curse of alienation and man himself will be free of the complexes which cause him so much pain and anguish. Tarkovsky does not argue, he shows. It is the images he invents which tell us of the terrible ordeal of traversing the road to the goal and the sense of futility or despair at the end - in a voice full of pain and perplexity.
Wajda's The Conductor has no such metaphysical dimension. It does not brood over the vanity of human wishes or the futility of the search for the secret of absolute happiness or final liberation. It merely makes a sly dig at the sheer stupidity of the petty bureaucrats who control the arts and insult the local orchestra in the home town of a renowned Polish conductor who has been settled abroad for decades, when the latter comes to visit it to meet the daugher of a woman he had once loved. The picture has many moving moments but it lacks the tension of Wajda's earlier work and is somewhat spoled by a slight overdose of sentimentality.
Agni Vera by a young Hungarian director. Paul Gabor, leaves, by way of contrast, a much more piquant impression. The close-ups capture the changes in the expression on the faces of the characters are the director takes a swipe at the stifling atmosphere at study circles and at local party meetings organised for self-criticism. Paul Gabor does it all so gently and playfully that he drives home his poing without invoking the censor's suspicion. In eone boisterous scene when women party members, all in the nude in a collective bath-room at a party training camp, are reprimanded for conduct unbecoming of Marxists, one of them asks rather cheekily whether there was something pettybourgeois about a pretty breast.
This vivid film about a beautiful but naive girl, who sleeps with the teacher at the study group one night and then tells the party meeting that she was in love not with him but only with his authority leaves the audience with a rather uneasy feeling over party mores. Gabor's canvas is small compared to that of his compatriot Jnasco who can handle universal themese of human freedom and the tenacity of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming odds with a sweep and a symbolism all his own. But he can explore personal relations and party mores and the points at which they mesh with a caustic elegance which carries his personal stamp.
The two Fellinis at the festival show how a master film-maker can explore reality even as he works off his obsessions and how fantasy ccan be used as a most entertaining means of coming to grips with a social problems. In The Orchestra Fellini takes on the new left which, if it has its own way, will rid society of all discipline and all hierarchy to the poing of dispensing even with the conductor, leaving every member of the orchestra to his own device. He handles with great aplomb not only the anarchy resulting from the revolt against the rule of the baton but also the pathetic denouement when the members of the orchestra see what suckers they have been. In The City Of Women his fantasy goes still wilder and threatens to get out of bounds every now and then. But by a sheer tour de force he manages to remain in perfect control. All the riotous images add up to a biting satire on women's lib and turn the image of the liberated woman into a caricature which is hilarious and pathetic at the same time.
Coppola's Apocalypse Now, on the other hand, fails to convey in convincing terms the insanity of the Vietnam war. It shows, as is only to be expected from this director, great technical competence and has the kind of appeal as a spectacle which goes down well with mass audiences. But its very loudness somehow detracts from its power-and the bizarre ending with its contrived exotic flavour, wholly out of place in a stark human tragedy on so vast a scale, spols everything. The war may have driven the colonel in the picture out of his mind. But the image the film creates is that of a freak rather than that of a sensitive man whose mind has given way under the stress of a senseless war.
Bergman's Autumn Sonata is one more essay by this master in exploring the human condition and showing how lonely men are and how vulnerable and how two persons can destroy each other as much by self-centredness as by hatred. In this case the two happen to be mother and daughter. The sheer intensify of the drama of their brief encounter in which their pent-up hatred explodes with terrific force becomes almost unbearable.
Another director, Angelopoulos, represented at the festival by two pictures is notable for the power with which he deals with the recent history of his country, Greece, and even more so for his uncanny use of spaces and silences to built up tension and an atmosphere of menace.
These and a few other films shown at the festival are a sufficient assurance, if any were needed, that the possibilities of the cinema have by no mans been exhausted and that its boundaries are being extended though at times rather erratically. The Indian cinema can learn a lot from what is being done elsewhere in adding to its own resources. But this can be done best not by borrowing-no one can in any case borrow author's style or idiom - but by profiting from news areas of experience covered by the medium and new techniques. What matters in the end is the ability to use these techniques for one's own ends, the courage to be true to one's own vision and the skill to hold the attention of at least a limited audience even when one is striking out in new directions since no innovatory skill can compensate in the film medium for dullness or obscurity.