Archive for July, 2007

One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich

July 31, 2007

In the book, his first, Solzhenitsyn writes with an exactitude that puts us through the life of Ivan Denisovich in one single day at a Siberian camp, serving a term of ten years for a crime he did not commit. The sentences are simple and unadorned; but their impact hard-hitting and powerful. First printed in the Russian magazine Novy Mir in 1962, the book quickly became a sensation in Russia. One tiny excerpt:

Shukhov said nothing. He didn’t even nod. Pulling his hat over his eyes, he walked out.
How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?


Umberto D.

July 31, 2007



Some minor observations on Umberto D:

– Most visually obvious was the ubiquitous low-camera shots that highlight and emphasize the surroundings, also viewing the characters, irrespective of their nature, with a superior or elevated admiration.

– A couple of nice metaphors: The pesky ants that reside in the same building as Umberto resembles his own position within the society; an uninvited existence and a hindrance to everyone around him. Another one (which I missed) was the stray cat depicting loneliness and isolation for Maria, who watches it through the windows of the kitchen.

– What drew me most into Umberto D. was how warm and compassionate it is, choosing to focus not on the harshness or cruelty of the society (assuming instead that it’s a given), but on its consequences on the proud and suffering individual.

Watching the film, I thought it must have been a sensation in Italy at that time, owing to its identification with the downtrodden, its sympathetic outlook on the pension-less elderly and its idealistic call to not surrender hope or accept defeat in the face of oppression. But only later I became aware of its controversial release. The well-written Umberto Eco essay accompanying the DVD details the film’s disastrous failure in 1952. I’ve reprinted it here:


By Umberto Eco

To be called Umberto E. meant I had to see Umberto D. as soon as it opened. My memory of it was confused, until I happened to see it again a few days ago. It is not that I couldn’t remember its plot, the protagonist’s face, or its atmosphere; yet I guess that the echo of the general response to the film when it first appeared had blurred my own reactions to it. As I recalled, it had been a controversial movie, and some had even panned it.

I pulled out The Adventurous Story of Italian Cinema (edited by Franca Faldini and Goffredo Fofi, 1979), and reading (or perhaps re-reading) through excerpts from the press of those days brought back the voices of that controvery. Guilio Andreotti had declared that kind of cinematography detrimental to the image of our country abroad. Other people’s reactions, a sort of underground censorship, had penalized the movie from the start, if not among critics, certainly at the box office. Angelo Rizzoli listed it among the seven most famous movies that had made him lose money. De Sica himself (Tempo illlustrato (sic), December 16, 1954) would admit; “Unfortunately, the movie’s flop in Italy had repercussions abroad. It was poorly promoted in France. In England, Korda would not even pay the guaranteed minimum and kept the film in the storeroom for two years. Despite all this, I consider it a good movie, and not just an extraordinarily important one in my life as an artist as well as a man. If I had to do it again, I’d make the exact same film. Like The Bicycle Thief. In Umberto D. I would only cut one scene out, the final one, with the children playing.” In Unita of February 27, 1956, on the wake of the American success of the film, De Sica reiterated: “I do not believe that the recent American success of my favorite child, Umberto D., can make up for the indifference, and even the hostility with which audiences and some of the critics met it when it first came out.”

Why was the movie so unsuccessful then, while today we consider it exemplary, crisp, clear, and touching? In the first place, De Sica had set a very difficult challenge for himself. With the simple story of an old man and his dog as the central theme, he set out to captivate audiences’ attention without the introduction of a love story (Ms. Casilio is a lovely counterpoint, but the tender animal-like quality of her character barely sets her above the dog); with no coup de theatre (with the exception of the finale and its subdued anticlimax); and without even the presence of Italian society as a choral background, like in Sciuscia or The Bicycle Thief. On the contrary, in Umberto D. that society is only vicariously represented by some characters that might be ungenerously described as sketchy. Umberto D.’s j’accuse, if there was one, was whispered in soft tones. That is what we appreciate today, whereas back then the movie was criticized for its lack of “epic” sweep.

The second reason for the movie’s failure is that Italian society had accepted its shame and misfortunes to be mirrored by neorealism, because Italy still lived under the shock of those tragedies and recognized itself in them. Umberto D. however, appeared at a later date, as Italy was slowly moving towards its economic boom and did not like to be confronted with its miseries. As postwar tattered beggars, we could almost afford to be proud of our ragamuffin image. Later, however, we had to look like a respectable nation (hence Andreotti’s reaction). Nobody found the notion that there were still pockets of poverty and despair appealing.

And I believe there may have been a third reason. The film revisited themes and ideals of postwar neorealism (see, for instance, the choice of a nonprofessional for the lead role), yet it moved away from the stylistic rules of that genre to attempt a new, more direct, and sophisticated kind of realism. In doing so, Umberto D. (without eliciting a laugh or even a smile) paved the way for what would become the best commedia all’italiana. All the ingredients of that social comedy are present here: the slovenly Carotenuto in the hospital, the nun, the landlord’s own world, even some of the dialogues between the old man and his friends and acquaintances – selfish people that need, of not (yet) cynicism, makes distant and unavailable.

Umberto D. seems to me to be a film straddling two worlds, two seasons of our cinema. But I only understood this a few days ago, when I realized that what seemed like unresolved ambiguities at the time of its first appearing, now look like fertile forebodings. Today Umberto D.’s two souls, that seemed puzzling back then, are harmoniously blended. What should I say? I felt deeply involved in the movie, more so today than at the first viewing. I could even read it in the light of contemporary events, with the unresolved problem of pensions commanding newspapers’ headlines these days in Italy. For an hour and a half I was in the company of a man alone with his dog and didn’t feel lonely.


July 27, 2007

sol.jpgAn excellent interview with the author of The Gulag Archipelago, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, discussing both past and present Russia. He looks so magisterial in this photograph. Loved the following comment:

SPIEGEL: All your life you have called on the authorities to repent for the millions of victims of the gulag and communist terror. Was this call really heard?

Solzhenitsyn: I have grown used to the fact that, throughout the world, public repentance is the most unacceptable option for the modern politician.

….And this parting comment adequately serves as a description of the above photograph:

SPIEGEL: Anyhow, we wish you many years of creative life.
Solzhenitsyn: No, no. Don’t. It’s enough.

Also, Book Covers reviews the cover of the new abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago here. I’m hoping to start One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich sometime this weekend. Been putting it off for close to a couple of months now.

The Girl at the Monceau Bakery and Suzanne’s Career

July 22, 2007

The first two of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales are short stories serving as indicators of themes that he will tackle in his future films – desire, reject, conscience, morality, catholicism and the intrinsic conflicting attributes of strength and weakness playing out in the minds of the protagonists. The Girl at the Monceau Bakery, shot beautifully (and cheaply, I presume) is a succinct description of a man exposed to out-of-place (yet not fraudulent) desires, but upon viewing his true path, his correct vision, discards the wrong for the right (without any feeling of pain or regret, which is important), and in so doing, establishes the central vein of Contes Moraux (Six Moral Tales).

Suzanne’s Career is slightly varied, the focus being on a woman (Suzanne), a naive easy-going type, who’s taken advantage of by two people she meets at an outside cafe, and one with whom she’s faintly attracted to, but who’s a real crook and mistreats her. The other, Bertrand, whom she considers a friend, is equally malign. He figures her as miserable and dull and sympathizes her, so considering himself to be superior – this is his pride and egotism. He calls her devoid of dignity, yet fails to realize that he himself has none, easily succumbing to even a faint persuasion from his friends. His unfailing trust in the crook (Guillaume) deceives his own mind, putting himself in a position to even suspect Suzanne but not Guillaume.

Bertrand’s partial enlightenment towards the end, that Suzanne has unknowingly beaten him at his own game by removing any cause for sympathy still only leaves a bitter mark that fails to correct him. The inner theme of Suzanne’s Career is slightly masked – it is Suzanne who chooses Guillaume, then realizes he is not the right one but still sticks on (maybe in the hope of correcting him, maybe to while away the time), eventually breaking up but maintaining friendship with the equally-deceiving Bertrand, and then finds her love elsewhere with whom she (presumably) goes on to lead a happy life.

But the POV is skewed here – it is not Suzanne who is the viewer’s eye as we would expect, it is Bertrand. This is what differentiates it from The Girl at the Monceau Bakery. Also, both these films have a narrator in them, something I’d not expected in a Rohmer film, who I’d thought was strictly conventional (maybe even eccentric) but am glad to find otherwise.

This Man Must Die

July 13, 2007

My first Chabrol film, This Man Must Die, has been a bit of a disappointment. The characters and events are just too stereotypical, and Chabrol strongly bifurcates the good and the bad, leaving out any possibility of an inner complexity which makes the film play out almost like a moral lesson. And for me, the underlying ambiguity of its ending failed to accomplish its raison d’etre – to involve the viewer more deeply and question his thoughts and presumptions. The predominant themes here are revenge, love and sacrifice, and while the first two are developed to sufficient depth, there remains a gap between them and the film’s sacrificial act which suddenly appears distant and well, unconvincing. But it is impossible to ignore the film’s brilliant opening sequence of the beach and the road, and another one later on in a boat. Visually, Chabrol conveys the suspense and tension through long overdrawn scenes, the culmination of which leaves one fully exhausted. I wonder perhaps if the film’s focus on love was lesser, would it have been better?….anyway, the Senses of Cinema article can be found here.

Chinua Achebe

July 12, 2007

The photograph on top is an excellent portrait of the recent Man Booker International winner, Chinua Achebe (photo: Frank May/AFP). What is so captivating about this photograph is the way it stares back, challenging and questioning the viewer, while simultaneously looking sullen. Achebe’s brooding face is perfectly complemented by his glasses that look just as downcast. Reminds me of the photograph on the bottom, of Igor Stravinsky, taken by Arnold Newman, who used to capture photographs of famous people with their milieu.

The Guardian has a nice article on Chinua Achebe (and their cropping of the same photograph makes him look even more intense). Some excerpts from a fairly detailed interview with the Nigerian author:

ACHEBE: There are bottlenecks in life, impossible situations, there are things that cannot be explained and if you think about them too long you get into a state of depression. You can’t make this or that happen, the futility of death, and all that. How do you deal with all these things, and still go on living? The way man attempted to deal with this was to create, to create stories and visions so that he could handle difficult, intractable problems.

MORROW: The second question is this. Is there a moment in a man or woman’s life where art becomes no longer necessary, where the bottlenecks disappear sufficiently so that art becomes useless?

ACHEBE: I don’t think so. Art is like a second handle on reality, on our life and the world. That is an alternative that is provided by art. It does not cancel life, it does not eliminate life. It gives us this possibility for contrast, even for escape. So if a life is going to be meaningful — I don’t see a point where life is going to be simpler; I think we can dream of such a period, but I doubt that it will come — it is our destiny that we must wrestle with difficult problems. The very nature of life is struggle. That’s why this need for an alternative — something that can be used as a foil — will always be a necessity to a life well-lived.

Wikipedia has an overview on the Nigerian Civil War and the formation of the ephemeral Republic of Biafra.

To the Lighthouse

July 9, 2007

Reading To the Lighthouse, I felt myself entering a labyrinth of disconnected thoughts and emotions that are jumbled with time and memory within the minds of the characters. Admittedly I’ve read very few works of literature, so there is nothing I can compare Woolf’s prose with. Most parts of the novel are exquisite similes and metaphors, with an overarching stream of consciousness that moves seamlessly from the mind of one person to the next, binding them together and also with the reader.

The novel’s passivity imposes a deeper connection both within itself and from the outside. In this small article that has excerpts from Auerbach’s essay “The Brown Stocking” (from his book Mimesis), Auerbach calls it as “the design of a close approach to objective reality by means of numerous subjective impressions received by various individuals (and at various times)”.

Further, “In Virginia Woolf’s case the external events have lost their hegemony, they serve to release and interpret inner events, whereas before her time…inner movements preponderantly function to prepare and motivate significant external happenings”. One of my favourite things with the book is its triptych structure – the three parts, “The Window”, “Time Passes” and “The Lighthouse”, each describing a different time period. Also, it was not as feminine as I initially expected it to be. Here is just one of the many, many beautiful passages:


Mrs Ramsay sat silent. She was glad, Lily thought, to rest in silence, uncommunicative; to rest in the extreme obscurity of human relationships. Who knows what we are, what we feel? Who knows even at the moment of intimacy, This is knowledge? Aren’t things spoilt then, Mrs Ramsay may have asked (it seemed to have happened so often, this silence by her side) by saying them? Aren’t we more expressive thus? The moment at least seemed extraordinarily fertile. She rammed a little hole in the sand and covered it up, by way of burying in it the perfection of the moment. It was like a drop of silver in which one dipped and illumined the darkness of the past.