Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The House Is Black (Farrokhzad. 1963)

"There is no shortage of ugliness in this world"

When I was younger I was the proud owner of what I thought was the premier comedy album of my generation, Weird Al’s “Poodle Hat”. Though I am still a supporter of Mr. Yankovic, I have come to realize that this album is not even a little bit funny. In fact, it is almost excruciatingly unfunny. The unfunniest song being “Party at the Leper Colony” where Weird Al sings about socializing with a group of rotting human beings as their body parts fall off. Honestly, I had no idea what leprosy was when I was younger. I do now. And it isn’t funny. At all. 

I’ll admit that Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black is the only film I have ever seen about this extremely serious disease, but I have been converted into a sympathetic consumer. At only twenty-two minutes long, this documentary is an unabashed and unafraid delve directly into an Iranian leper colony. Nothing is ever hidden. The viewer is exposed to at least one image of every significant symptom of the terrifying disease. For those of you who do not know, leprosy is a bacterial infection that causes lesions, swellings and eventually rots the skin (WebMD). Apparently the disease was a large enough issue in Iran that a female poet decided to pick up a camera and make one of the most haunting and humanistic short films I have ever seen. 

The House is Black is separated into two “stories” with a straightforward male narrator delivering the facts about leprosy followed by Farrokhzad’s much more artistic juxtaposing of religion, thankfulness, politics and pain. The aforementioned male narrator stresses more than once that “leprosy is not an incurable disease”, yet all the audience sees is images of human faces with caved in noses, swollen eye-sockets and dead flesh. Children are shown playing in the streets throughout the entirety of the film – perhaps as a way to draw in the sympathy from the audience. While watching the film it is impossible to forget that the camera is inside a colony of lepers. Farrokhzad, who also wrote and directed, edited the action with a very fast finger. She frequently repeats shots that have already been shown multiple times. This includes a doctor scrapping the dead flesh from the foot of a stricken man.

The House is Black was made in 1963. That was almost 50 years ago. It is made abundantly clear that the disease can be cured. Yet, according to BBC News there are still several countries where leper colonies exist. Why? It is said in the film that this disease often follows poverty. In the zones of the most unfortunate sits a relatively dormant disease. But, per usual, these people are often ignored and thrown into colonies. This may have been Farrokhzad’s intentions in being so unaltered. The lepers of Northern Iran were being ignored and shoved into colonies to die in huddled masses. Where was the government? It kind of reminds me of how the poor are treated in the United States today. 

Maybe the most haunting thing about the film is the fact that the people being exploited seem to still be grateful. In moments that toe the line of feeling staged, the camera catches the inflicted subjects as they pray and thank God for their life and happiness. I have $65,198 in student loans. Thinking about paying them off makes me want to cry. Then I watched The House is Black. These are men, women and children who are literally dying under the radar yet they are on their knees thanking God for their prosperity?! Situational poverty is a thing, but their situation is an awful lot worse than mine. 

Prayer may also be the most complex aspect of the film. As stated before, Farrokhzad was a poet. She takes these prayers and proclamations of thankfulness and stitches them together with images of death, decay and pain. There must be some sort of purposeful criticism toward Islam – maybe even all religion – and the direct contradictions in the teachings of God. Why should these men and women be thankful?

The most seemingly staged moment in the film, other than the ending, takes place near the end in the school. The children are asked to thank God for their parents. The teacher asks a young boy why it is good to have a mother and father. The child answers with a haunting “I don’t know. I don’t have either.” #chills. 

Forugh Farrokhzad was a female modernist poet and divorcee in Iran. Needless to say, she was a controversial figure. She lived her life as a strong and independent woman in a place where stronger people have been killed for lesser crimes. I do not know the particulars, but I have a feeling that the government of her home country was not keen on her exposing their poorest, sickest and most needy citizens. To make herself even more of a positive role model for women, after filming The House is Black she adopted a child from the leper colony, Hossein Mansouri.

This is a twenty-two minute movie that will give the audience a lot more than they can probably handle. This is not movie magic. This is human pain and suffering. Farrokhzad does not pull any of her punches. If you do not cry, or at least want to cry, you desperately need to reevaluate your personality.

The House is Black: A

Monday, June 4, 2012

Black Narcissus (Powell. Pressburger. 1947)

"Remember, the superior of all is the servant of all."

 If you read my blog on a regular basis then you already know that I am a huge nerd when it comes to professional wrestling. One of my favorite promotions in wrestling history is the now defunct original ECW; not that WWE rehash garbage. Though he was never really one of my absolute favorites, a wrestler named Sabu was one of the most successful entertainers in that promotion. He was bold, death-defying and pretty much willing to do anything to entertain the crowd. Sabu was an interesting character.

I, believe it or not, have a reason for that little story. Sabu's actual name is Terry Brunk and his uncle/trainer is the original Sheik in wrestling. He was a huge fan of an Indian actor who was named Sabu. This is where the name of the famous wrestler originates. The actor Sabu is featured in a supporting role in the Powell/Pressburger film Black Narcissus. Six degrees of ECW.

Honestly, none of that has anything to do with the movie. But I thought it was an interesting little bit of trivia. In Black Narcissus the actor Sabu plays a relatively unimportant role as the Young General. He comes to a newly opened convent nestled up in a Himalayan mountain village in order to get an education. The nuns running the convent are the real stars of the movie. In particular, Black Narcissus tells the story of the nun put in charge of the convent's development, Sister Clodagh. She is played by the stunningly beautiful Deborah Kerr in a performance that is such a polar opposite to my previous experience with her in An Affair to Remember that I had to do a double take several times to convince myself that I wasn't looking at a different actress with the same name.

A small group of nuns are sent to the mountains to open a charitable school to the unwashed masses in the mountains. The aforementioned Sister Clodagh is the first to be introduced followed by a her subsidiaries that includes the very likeable Sister Ruth.

Sister Ruth is an interesting character. She is played by Kathleen Byron as dark, tortured and seemingly willing to break down very easily. This all comes to a head when she meets a charismatic enigma named Mr. Dean. Being a movie about nuns in a secluded convent - it seemed to be only a matter of time before there was some sort of love triangle. Sister Clodagh and Ruth both have bubbling feelings for Mr. Dean. Ruth is willing to admit it, but Clodagh is a character that keeps things more tightly under-wraps.

The audience learns that Clodagh was not always such a religious person. She was dating a man in Ireland and she was fully committed to marrying him. It is heavily implied that she had premarital sex with him - most likely her first and only time. The man then moved to the United States with no intention of inviting her along. In a fit of humiliation, Clodagh became a nun. There are several flashback scenes in which the audience is introduced to many of the temptations that continue to challenge Sister Clodagh's faith in the present time.

Mr. Dean's appearance alone screams manhood. He has rugged eyes and a copious amount of body hair. His smooth demeanor and mysterious actions uncover the deeply hidden sexual urges in Clodagh. Powell has described the film in saying "It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image from beginning to end. It is a film full of wonderful performances and passion just below the surface, which finally, at the end of the film, erupts." This, for me, is the perfect interpretation of Black Narcissus. Though it is filled with great performances, there is no more important aspect to the film than its underlying eroticism.

With all of this being said, Black Narcissus is still a Powell/Pressburger production. What does that mean? In my experience it means that the film will be visually amazing, have an intense ending and be...well...boring for about an hour of its runtime. The duo's later work on The Red Shoes is further evidence to that statement. In both films, the first hour is almost impossible to get through. Not only is it not interesting, but nothing really ever happens. Characters are introduced, developed and then lost without explanation. Themes are presented and then prematurely swept under the rug. Why was there nothing done to Mr. Dean after he shows up drunk to the Christmas church service? It just happened and then the story moved on without any closure or consequence.

Some of the sets in the film are breathtakingly fun to look at. Black Narcissus features Academy Award winning cinematography and set designs that thrust the desired visual onto the audience. My favorite shot in the film is the famous bell ringing shot on the side of the mountain. In a subtle foreshadow, Powell and Pressburger use this exact shot multiple times in the film in order to thoroughly convey how far of a fall it is off the mountain. Somehow this scene, along with a haunting score, is more frightening than even some of the more intense moments.

If a moviegoer is at all familiar with the work of Powell, they already expected Black Narcissus to look beautiful. The use of color, background, extras and moving cameras all compliment the rigid development of the nuns - especially Sister Ruth. Powell and Pressburger may not have always told interesting stories, but their films are almost always crafted with a snobbish attention to every detail.

And just like in all of the other movies I have seen by this team, Black Narcissus manages to lull you to sleep in order to slap you awake again by the drama surrounding the finale moments. For multiple reasons - the convent fails. Most of the nuns are sent home in shame, and the intensity leading up to this ending is what saves the film for me. Usually I am more than willing to spoil an ending, but I was so flabbergasted by the closing moments of Black Narcissus that I have decided to keep this review spoiler free. I have to admit, the film is painfully dry for over an hour. But if you want to watch a nun movie for its constant entertainment value then you can always watch Sister Act. Black Narcissus is a movie that slowly builds to a worthwhile climax. It numbs the mind for the sake of completely blowing it later. Stick around for the end. It is worth it.

Black Narcissus: B