by Deepa Deosthalee
The 13th edition of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image's film festival got underway on Thursday in Mumbai with much fanfare and as many glitches. Year on year, while the size and buzz has got bigger, basic organisational issues haven't been resolved.
For instance, delegates can't be sure to get a catalogue of the films being screened, because there just aren't enough copies around. Somebody forgot to count the number of passes they'd issued and then order as many copies.
But that's not as bad as the problems with various screenings on the second day when the festival was meant to take off in earnest at a new multiplex venue. The screening of Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse turned into a cruel farce with the entire opening voice-over droning on without subtitles, followed by strange aspect ratio experiments and continued absence of subtitles resulting in a walkout by miffed delegates. On other screens there were other problems. But like good cinema addicts, we plodded on patiently. As we know in India, things usually get worse before they get better.
My Little Princess
So with Eva Ionesco's disturbing autobiographical debut My Little Princess, they merely broke the continuity every now and then to change the reels and only once did they load it wrong to give us an upside-down view, before nonchalantly turning it back and continuing without a pause. Like in the old days when runners took prints of the same film from one theatre to another while the audience sweated it out in anticipation of what was to follow.
The breaks hampered the viewing, but we weren't in the mood for another walkout. Besides, it's nearly impossible to walk out on Isabelle Huppert, who plays the unhinged diva Hanna (modelled after Ionesco's own mother who was some sort of a maverick photographer back int he '70s in Paris) with theatrical panache and an equally affected performance from a gorgeous little girl called Anamaria Vartolomei who plays her daughter Violetta.
The mother takes provocative pictures of her daughter and peddles them as art -- Ionesco's own mother reportedly started abusing her in this fashion at the age of four, but the filmmaker tones down the shock somewhat by turning her into a girl of 10 who lives with Hanna's godfearing grandmother. The child grows up before her time and even understands how dangerous her mother's presence can be for her. It's the way Huppert looks at her that sends a chill up your spine. She's jealous and angry about the child's beauty and her youth. If there's an iota of motherly love in her, there's no evidence of it in the screenplay. It's as unrelenting a portrait as Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata, but Ingmar Bergman managed to humanise Charlotte, while My Little Princess doesn't go beyond the initial horror of watching this damaged duo.
Ultimately, while making this film may have proved cathartic for the filmmaker, it's a very contentious effort, for the exploitative nature of the narrative and for not being able to make a tangible connection between the audience and the little girl whose life is thrown open to voyeurism yet again.
My pick of the festival so far is a small Argentinian film called Las Acacias by first-time director Pablo Giorgelli, a road-movie about an odd couple thrown together for two days on a trip from Paraguay to Buenos Aires. Ruben (German De Silva) delivers lumber from one country to the other. On this trip, he's been requested by an acquaintance to give a local woman a ride to Argentina. What he hasn't been told is that the woman, Jacinta (Hebe Duarte) is accompanied by her little baby daughter Anahi (an adorable Nayra Calle Mamani).
The awkwardness between them gradually dissolves but the beauty is, so much is left unsaid. The filmmaker uses his actors and the confined space of the truck to build a fabulous study of changing perspectives. At one point the trio takes a detour because Ruben is waiting to drop something off at his sister's house and there's an idyllic moment with man woman and child sitting by a lake and a stray dog who wanders towards them completing the fleeting image of family bliss. To use the little baby's expressions to layer the screenplay is another masterstroke. Giorgelli's humanist film celebrates unlikely bonds and hope of deliverance for lost and lonely hearts.
Whatever happened to Gus Van Sant before he decided to make Restless clearly wasn't good for him. A very superficial stab at mortality and the eternal fascination with intense, short-lived romances involving a partner on death-bed (yes, she's dying of a brain tumour too) who looks ethereal as she get sicker and relentlessly beautiful -- the ugliness and suffering of cancer isn't for the screen, it's for real people who can't cope -- will perhaps appeal to teenagers wont to believe in such tosh. Anna (Mia Wasikowska trying to make something of an ill-defined role) meets serial funeral crasher Enoch (Dennis Hopper's son Henry making an awkward debut) -- he's a school drop-out who lost both his parents in a car crash, missed their funerals because he was in a coma (hence that bizarre obsession), and came back from the dead in the company of an apparition -- a Japanese Kamikaze pilot from World War 2.
There's also Charles Darwin in a supporting part as Anna's role model and his theory of evolution is meant to lend weight to the doomed romance. As it happens with most bad films, you really don't care about either character. Enoch's aunt, who has sacrificed her life to take care of him (and whom he stoically snubs) is far more human than her self-obsessed, immature ward. As for Anna, her personality is too sketchy to give us any real clues. Like it's protagonist, Van Sant's film is consumed by its own pretty melancholia and ultimately drowns in a cesspool of mawkishness.
Umesh Kulkarni has a sharp sense for satire, as does Girish Kulkarni, who has penned the script and screenplay of Deool. For the first half of its running time, Deool is an absolute riot. It's witty, crisp, thought-provoking and touching. The idea of the village simpleton getting a vision of lord Brahma while napping under a tree on a hot summer afternoon and the mayhem it unleashes in the village isn't very original. You know what to expect. The innocent protagonist goes around telling people about his experience without anticipating its consequences.
Various elements in the village seize the opportunity and before long there's a temple, where they may have been a hospital that the community badly needs. The local politician (brilliantly essayed by Nana Patekar), his subordinates and rivals, the media, the schoolteacher and just about everyone else jumps onto the bandwagon and prosperity finally arrives. The only person who chooses to walk away from it is a relatively well-to-do and literate man called Anna (Dilip Prabhawalkar), who first floated the plan for the hospital.
Brilliantly acted, Deool is marred by a dragging second half -- much of what the director wants to say about the unholy nexus between organised religion, politics and globalisation has already been dealt with effectively in the first -- which gets repetitive and meanders towards a half-baked end. At least 30 minutes shorter and Deool could have been as hard-hitting a punch as Kulkarni's debut film Valu.
This article was originally featured on Film Impressions.