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Monday, October 3, 2011

Two Movies: of Beauty and Evil

A couple of weeks ago I watched a movie called Water, and a couple of days later I watched another one called Never Let Me Go. Although they're very different movies in many ways: Water was made in India, and takes place in Varanasi on the Ganges in 1938, and Never Let Me Go takes place in an alternate history late 20th Century England, they are visually and dramatically beautiful films made with great craft. and they are both about societies which accept, even profit from, great evil. I was deeply moved by both films, and couldn't escape being seriously disturbed by the evil in both. Strangely, I had not heard of either one before watching them (I usually at least read a review in the local paper of any new movie, though I've been missing them more lately because we've been going to the theater perhaps once a year), but after watching the second one I immediately thought of their similarities. I'll talk more about the films and why they are alike after the cut. Caution: there are spoilers for both movies.

Water was released in 2005, directed and story written by Deepa Mehta, an Indian-born director living in Canada. It's the story of a group of widows forced to live in poverty in a temple on the Ganges, set against the backdrop of the struggle for independence as Ghandi travels by train to rally the people of India to the cause.  It's important to understand the place of widows in Hindu society at this time: they effectively had none.  Many of them were married in early childhood (as early as 4 or 5) to men much older than themselves, and widowed before they became old enough to meet their husbands.  Once widowed they have the same status as their husbands: they are dead to both his family and their own; they may not work, they may not interact with men other than priests or holy men of some kind, and they may not marry again.  And, as a priest explains to one of them late in the movie, these strictures were created so that the widows would not have to be supported by their families: it's all about money.

The main plot revolves around one of the widows, Kalyani, who is young and beautiful, and who has been pimped out by the leader of the widows for money to run the household. Narayan, a young Brahmin and follower of Ghandi falls in love with Kalyani and asks her to marry him, in defiance of his father and mother (not only is she a widow, she is also lower caste).  Around this story, and woven through it, is the story of Chuyia, a seven year-old widow who is delivered to the widows' ashram by her parents at the beginning of the movie.  She refuses to accept her status, rebelling, throwing tantrums, and winning Kalyani's affection and the grudging respect of some of the other widows.

The movie was filmed in ultrawide screen, and uses the format to the fullest, especially in the shots on the banks of the river.  As far as I could see, all the shots, interior and exterior, day and night, were shot in available light (with some practical lighting in lanterns, and perhaps some reflector work, to highlight faces).  Despite the low light levels the image quality is crisp; there's no more grain or noise in the night shots than the day.  The palette is primarily earth tones and whites in the day shots, and blue-white and dark grays for the night shots.  The resultant images are often quite painterly.  Composition of the fixed camera shots is mostly very strong and simple, with bold foreground figures; some of the tracking shots are breathtaking, going from strong composition to strong composition through intermediate stages which are all equally strong.  This movie really is a feast for the eyes.

The acting is almost uniformly excellent: all the characters, even the supporting characters, of whom there are more than 10, are portrayed with depth and care.  This is the result of superior work on the part of all the actors and the writer/director.  For instance, the leader of the widows, who maintains strict control of the actions of all the widows, cajoling and forcing conformance to the customs and rules of widowhood, and who breaks those rules by pimping one of her charges in order for the ashram to survive, is shown as more than a flat character containing nothing but evil.  The role of complete evil is reserved for the men who demand and maintain the state of the widows for their own convenience, especially Narayan's father, who is revealed by the end of the movie to be a whoremonger and pedophile.

Never Let Me Go was adapted from a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.  It is the story of three English children, Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth.  They start the movie as students at a boarding school in the English countryside.  Over the years they come to form a group, in which both Kathy and Ruth fall in love with Tommy, though Ruth deliberately steals Tommy from Kathy before Kathy admits her love.  Shortly before graduation one of the teachers tells the children that they have been raised to be organ donors, and will die ("reach completion") before they are 30.  They, the children around them, and all the adults in the school and outside, with the exception of the teacher who revealed their fate seem to accept this fate as fair and ethical.

After graduation Tommy and Ruth prepare to donate their organs, and Kathy becomes a "carer", someone who assists donors in accepting donation. By the end of the movie there have been mild objections to donation by a couple of ex-teachers from the childrens' school, which was shut down in favor of other techniques of raising donors which give them even less of a glimpse of life than Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy got.   And at the end Tommy and Ruth have "completed", and Kathy is preparing for her first donation.

The acceptance with which the death of the children (who by this time are in their 20's but cannot be said to have been allowed to grow into a normal adult life) is viewed by the society they live in is truly horrifying; doctors, teachers, psychiatrists and other "caregivers" do their utmost to ensure that the donation process goes smoothly, sure in the knowledge that they will benefit from health organs should they become sick.   Unlike in most other stories about oppression written in the West, especially in American science-fiction, there is no Resistance, no cabal of revolutionaries to save the donors.  Why, people ask themselves in this alternative England, should we rebel against a policy that is so beneficial to us?

This movie is also very well mounted, though it's not quite so showy in its cinematography or its imagery.  It's shot in standard widescreen format with pastel palette.  Colors are not artificially desaturated, but they're not vivid; exterior shots are primarily in rural scenery with lots of light greens and interior shots contain a lot of blacks and whites.  The result is an understated visual style which underscores the horror of the childrens' fate.  The music is uniformly sad, at times almost wrenching in its emotional content.

The acting by the three principle characters is largely underplayed; they accept their fate and so believe they have nothing to regret about their lives and their deaths.  They don't show deep emotion most of the time, because they've been raised in as stress-free a manner as possible, and their dialog and body language reflects this.

In both movies the theme of deeply-seated discrimination against a group of people based on the benefit to the rest of society, coupled with great, and largely unthinking, cruelty is contrasted to and underlined by visual beauty and understated action.  This was, I think, a carefully-considered strategy by the filmmakers in both cases, and in both cases I think it's extremely successful. I highly recommend both movies, because of their themes and their craft.  And I hope that other filmmakers follow their example in making films about horrific events and situations, whether fictional or real. Hitting the viewer over the head with a club has its place and its purpose (see Schindler's List or Carpenter's The Thing for good examples) but often the needle or the scalpel can do more with less.

1 comment:

john_m_burt said...

Some institutions are more peculiar than others.