Monday, January 22, 2007

Climates, Clandestini and Revolutions

There are few film directors that would cast themselves as a rapist in a film, much less resist making the character an out-and-out villain. The Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, in his latest film Climates, has done just that and what is most disturbing about his character's rape of a female friend is the fact that the woman calls him again and seems to be on good terms with him. Distasteful and morally dubious as this is, it is nonetheless credible, as viewed within the film's narrative. Ceylan's character, a lecturer in architecture, is an untrustworthy, supercilious sort, who lies to his estranged wife in a vain attempt to win her back, only to change his mind again. But, every villain has their reasons, as Jean Renoir once said, and even this unpleasant man's quotidian life, so impressively delineated, is compulsively watchable. The penultimate scene where he lies to his wife and reduces her to tears is both uncomfortable and familiar to anyone who has gone through a painful break-up. There is also a dream-sequence where the younger wife, Bahar - played by the director's real-life wife Ebru - imagines she is being buried in sand by her husband. It is one of the few I have ever seen in a film that is in any way persuasive.

After his previous film, Uzak, which was an arthouse hit a couple of years ago, Ceylan proves himself to be one of cinema's finest chroniclers of human emotions. In Uzak, a depressive Istanbul photographer puts up his country cousin and the relation between them quickly becomes strained. There is a similar air of pessimism in Climates, though one shot through with a beautiful visual texture - Ceylan is also an accomplished photographer - and the performances, though quiet and intimiste, are far from the catatonically mannered ones so familiar from countless arthouse releases. Marital difficulties make up a significant sub-genre of cinema, with classics such as Rossellini's Voyage to Italy, Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage and Antonioni's La Notte and Red Desert. The Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa, who is also a fine observer of strained relationships disappointed last year with Un Couple parfait, his first French film, which was a bit too talky for my liking. Until his next film, Climates is a more than adequate surrogate, one that confirms Ceylan as one of Europe's most redoubtable filmmakers.

There were two other decent European films I saw last week. One, Italian, entitled Saimir, directed by Francesco Munzi, about an Albanian expat teenager, who lives with his people-trafficking father and who weathers a number of cruel blows before taking things, rather foolishly into his own hands, and extracting a certain justice. It is a tough film that reminds one of the Dardenne brothers' work, La Promesse, though it has a more stately style and it lacks the Dardenne's Hardyesque eye for a crucial event that sets in train an irrevocable, tragic sequence of events. A bit jilted in parts, it is nonetheless an assured film.

The other film is 12:08, East of Bucharest, a political comedy about a local TV station's attempts to mount a televised inquest on the fifteenth anniversary of Ceaucescu's fall into whether the local town actually witnessed a revolution, meaning, did people actually protest before 12:08 on the 22nd of December 1989, at which time the dictator abdicated and dissent became safe once again? The film is a bit lopsided as the second half devotes a bit too much time to the programme itself and the central conceit of erroneously-claimed heroism is a bit jaded, having been used to claim allegiance to everything from the French resistance to participation in the Easter Rising. But there is some sharply mordant humour in the film, particularly in the depictions of the pompous textile-manufacturer-turned-TV-station-owner and the haplessly indebted alcoholic academic, who claims to have been at the fore of the local revolution all those years before. The film won the Caméra d'Or last year for its young director Corneliu Porumboiu, just thirty-one years of age, and he uses his experience as a camera operator on such a local television station for much of the humour. And there is a subtle lyricism in his direction also, such as the two montages of the streetlights turning first off and then on that bookend the film, and which also serve as a metaphor for the hesitant revolution of the town's history. Though, like the superior The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the film does not make one terribly keen to visit Romania, it is further evidence of a remarkable cinematic renaissance in the beleagured country. Porumboiu is a director to watch out for in the future.