La graine et le mulet (Couscous) (2007)

Director: Abdel Kechiche

Screenplay: Abdel Kechiche

Though born in Tunisia in 1960, writer-director-actor Abdel Kechiche immigrated with his family to France in 1966, setting up residence in Nice.  Kechiche made his debut as an actor in 1984 and it wasn’t until 2000, at the age of 40 and after numerous acting roles, that he followed his desire to direct.  His first feature film, La faute à Voltaire (Blame it on Voltaire), did well at several European film festivals, receiving a total of seven awards, including the CinemAvvenire and Luigi De Laurentiis awards at the 2000 Venice Film Festival.  La graine et le mulet marks his third directorial effort and is undoubtedly his most critically acclaimed work to date.

In La graine et le mulet, newcomer Habib Boufares plays Slimane Beiji, a sixty-one-year-old dockhand who finds himself laid off after 35 years of service.  With two families to support and very little money to speak of, Slimane decides to open his own restaurant – an old ship transformed into a floating dining experience in which his ex-wife’s (Bouraouïa Marzouk) legendary fish couscous is served.  Opening a restaurant proves to be no simple task and as Slimane’s pockets do not run very deep, he is forced to apply for a loan and create business proposals which are all very much out of his realm of experience.  Fortunately for him, he’s both encouraged and aided by Rym (Hafsia Herzi), his daughter from his current relationship.

Undoubtedly, Kechiche’s greatest accomplishment with La graine et le mulet is the manner by which he allows his characters the onscreen room that they need to breathe.  Scenes are somewhat lengthy, allowing for the characters to reveal their personalities in a natural and uncompromising manner.  This is especially beneficial given the fact that most of the actors in the film are untrained, first time actors.  There’s a very genuine, almost documentarian feel to all of this.  As a result, the moments when the family are arguing feel awkward to watch, as if we the audience are intruding on one private family matter after another.

La graine et le mulet‘s central story isn’t particularly fascinating, but it works solely because of the personal manner in which we’re drawn into the affairs of Slimane and his family.  In addition to this, the performances of Habib Boufares and Hafsia Herzi are particularly powerful, though they both play on opposite ends of the scale.  Boufares is capable of saying everything with a single morose glance, making him a pitiable and empathetic character all at once.  Herzi is outright explosive as Rym, a young woman filled with pride and unwavering determination and devotion.  The relationship between her and her father Slimane, as well as how she interacts with her half-brothers and sisters is simply mesmerizing to watch.

As the family dynamic intensifies throughout the film, Kechiche keeps his focus on Slimane.  This is the family that he’s built and these are the sacrifices that he’s made.  Everyone it seems, is talking about Slimane, whether to his face or behind his back, and he weathers it all with an unwavering mixture of calm and helplessness.  It’s the film’s third act that really devours the heart, amounting to 50 minutes of what I can only describe as heartbreaking cinema.  It’s honestly been quite a while since a film moved me in the way that La graine et le mulet did.  This is not an uplifting film, but it is a wonderfully orchestrated look into the complexities, the help and the outright hinderance of family life.

-Mike

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A Night in Heaven (1983)

Director: John G. Avildsen

Screenplay: Joan Tewkesbury

From the Oscar-winning director of Rocky (1976) and the co-writer of Nashville (1975) comes this unbelievable mess of an ’80s romantic drama-fantasy (dramantasy?), centred on a Florida community-college professor’s affair with one of her students, who moonlights as a male stripper. The professor, Faye (Lesley Ann Warren), is having marital problems at home (her husband [Robert Logan] has lost his job at NASA, and is too tired or defeated to make love at night); the student, Rick (Christopher Atkins), is a bright but cocky 21-year-old who is paying his way through college working the peeler circuit under his nom de strip “Ricky the Rocket.”

One night Faye and a couple of her girlfriends visit the club (“Heaven”) at which Ricky is the star attraction. When he emerges for his big supergalactic dance number, among the hordes of ogling women he locks eyes with Faye (who obviously likes the kid, despite recently flunking him out of her class for his glib effort on the final exam); Ricky zeroes in on her with a series of sexy moves, and after some initial reticence on her part the two are caught in a passionate open-mouthed kiss. This will naturally have ramifications over the rest of the film, as Rick and Faye attempt to resolve their (forbidden) feelings for one another, while her suspicious husband battles with jealousy and his own feelings of inadequacy.


As much as I’ve tried to synthesize the plot for you, A Night in Heaven has to feature one of the most (unintentionally) incoherent narratives you’re likely to see out of Hollywood. Several critics (notably Roger Ebert) have surmised that large sections of Joan Tewkesbury’s potentially interesting script were excised in the cutting room, occasioning some pretty glaring leaps in the plotting and sizable gaps in the character development. I’d estimate that the husband, Whitney, suffers the most from the vagaries of the editing (for which director Avildsen is also credited). His character arc is meted out in choppy, bizarrely staggered scenes, the most random of which happens upon Whitney calmly loading a gun at his kitchen table – an almost surreal image given the filmmakers have yet to hint at this point in the story that the character is either suicidally depressed or homicidally suspicious enough to have any use for the weapon. (What Whitney finally does with the gun is equally random and ridiculous.)

I hasten to admit that A Night in Heaven does contain one extraordinary scene: the aforementioned “Ricky the Rocket” striptease. (Note: all stills in this review are taken from this scene; the scene itself can be viewed here.) The opening moments of this striptease are alone worth the price of admission: as the club emcee works the all-female audience into a frenzy of anticipation, Ricky, garbed in a disco-inspired version of an astronaut suit, rises from a blanket of fog to the opening chords of Jan Hammer and Next’s “Like What You See”; when the thumping beat of the song kicks in, Ricky takes to grinding his crotch along one of the club’s handrails as though riding a rocket like a bucking bronco. It’s all marvelously lit (love those glinting bubbles!), photographed and – yes – edited. Christopher Atkins, no doubt beloved by many as that curly-haired dude from The Pirate Movie (1982), brings an irreverence and joie de vivre to the striptease that makes it both hilariously over-the-top and surprisingly sexy, if in a highly corny sort of way. (Atkins was rewarded with a Worst Actor Golden Raspberry for his efforts; sometimes I think the Razzie folks have no sense of humour.) And in case you’re wondering, the scene doesn’t shy away from its gay connotations either, as Ricky at one point grabs the hand of the male emcee and, to the latter’s delight, playfully rubs it against his crotch.

If I were pressed to put my serious-face on and analyze the scene further, however, I’d have to concede that it does seem to evince an off-putting power imbalance (or power reversal) in the relationship between Ricky and Faye; if the latter is professionally-speaking an authority figure, she is mainly subjugated by the sexual authority of her pupil Ricky in the strip club, and at all points afterward in their affair. Faye seems positively intimidated by Ricky during the striptease, and because Ricky clearly senses this, there is a temptation to read the boy’s aggressive sexual come-ons as his (subconscious or not; harmless or not) revenge on Faye for flunking him in class – a way for the libidinous lad to gain the upper-hand. Though the film tries for a time to sell Faye and Ricky as a pair of kindred spirits (I think; one can never be sure with the editing), it remains obvious that Ricky acts as the sexual master of the relationship, guiding a trembling Faye through her paces as they conduct their illicit affair.

It’s a fairly ludicrous proposition – that the young, still-boyish Ricky could hold such sexual sway over the mature professional Faye (or perhaps it’s Lesley Ann Warren I’m thinking of) – but at least the film seems to understand this (e.g., by including an absurd scene meant to parallel the main action of the plot, in which Whitney goes to a job interview at an arcade-game company only to find that the position’s been filled by a ten-year-old boy), even if at the same time it fails to excuse the ideology behind making Faye so sexually timorous. As in Thief of Hearts (another piece of cheesy ’80s eroticism I reviewed, rather facetiously, here) the lead female character of A Night in Heaven seems fundamentally incapable of instigating sex on her own, requiring the assertive advances of a man (or man-boy) to unlock her sexual desires; this has the effect of not only denying female sexual self-determination, but also of positioning the male as both sexual liberator and sexual superior.* This is perhaps best encapsulated in Heaven by the first image of this review, where Ricky is framed from below, haloed like a glistening angel – a saviour – looking down on Faye, come to rescue her sexual soul. I’m not sure A Night in Heaven is quite coherent enough to constitute a thorough repudiation of female sexual autonomy (as Thief of Hearts does), but it does seem caught in that typically reactionary mindset of ’80s Hollywood that makes female sexual fantasy look alarmingly like male sexual fantasy. I’d love to track down Tewkesbury’s original script and find out where Avildsen’s film significantly truncated, and perhaps corrupted, her material.

Despite everything I just said, I stand by my claim that the dude from The Pirate Movie does a mean striptease.

-Cam

* Jonathan Demme effectively reverses this standard in his wonderful Something Wild (1986), in which Melanie Griffith’s flaky, fun-loving character liberates Jeff Daniels from his tight-collared repression by whisking him into bed before he knows what hit him. Griffith actually seems to enhance Daniels’ life, making him more adventurous, whereas in A Night a Heaven, Ricky only succeeds in subjecting Faye to his sexual whims, leaving her guilt-ridden about her extra-marital indiscretions.

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Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks) (2008)

Director: Dany Boon

Screenplay: Dany Boon, Alexandre Charlot, Franck Manier

Actor-writer-director Dany Boon’s gentle comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis ruled the French box-office in 2008.  I’m not just talking about it being a hit, I’m talking about it being a monster hit in France, on par with monster hits like Titanic or The Dark Knight or the Lord of the Rings films.  As a matter of fact, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis has the distinction of being the most successful French film in France of all time.  Not bad at all considering that the film was made on the relatively tiny budget of 11 million euros.

Bievenue chez les Ch’tis’ success lies in its ability to follow a simple yet universally understood and experienced phenomenon: the regional bias.  Kad Merad is Phillipe Abrams, a rather weasly postal official whose desperation to gain a work transfer to one of southern France’s gorgeous cities causes him to pretend that he’s handicapped (a guaranteed advantage for such promotions).  It isn’t long before Phillipe is found out by the powers that be within the Postal Service.  As punishment, he’s transferred to the dreaded north of France: the Nord-Pas de Calais region, to the town Bergues, for a minimum of two years.  Phillipe timidly reveals this news to his wife Julie (Zoé Félix) and is at once chewed out something fierce.  The Nord-Pas de Calais, it seems, is worse than hell itself, with temperatures dropping to inhumane levels, populated by an army of beer swilling, troglodytic rubes.  She absolutely refuses to move to such a place and Phillipe is left with no other alternative than to leave Julie and their young son Raphaël behind, returning home for weekend visits.

Upon arrival in Bergues, Phillipe meets Antoine (Dany Boon), a local postal worker who introduces him to the rest of the staff at the town’s tiny post office.  Phillipe is less than thrilled by any of this and makes little to no initial effort to make the best of his new position.  But as time passes, Phillipe begins to see things in a new light – one which slowly whittles away his preconceived notions about the places and people that he doesn’t know.

There are moments in Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis when it all feels a little melodramatic.  The build up to Phillipe leaving for Bergues, for example, is somewhat over the top, going out of its way to convince us that this silly man’s banishment to the north is nothing short of a death sentence.  Still, there’s a reason for this sort of melodrama and rather than have it feel as though we’re being hit over the head by the notion of how horrid Bergues is meant to be, Boon seems to be taking the piss out of those who would so disdainfully condemn a place which they’ve never bothered to visit.  It’s melodrama at the expense of melodrama, if you will.

Bievenue chez les Ch’tis isn’t high art, but it doesn’t try to be, either.  It’s a film that’s obviously been able to resonate with audiences by pointing out the regional stereotyping and foolishness we’re all guilty of, and by laughing at the sheer silliness of it all.  Speaking as someone who originally comes from a place that is treated with equal disdain as was Bergues,  I can honestly say that it’s entirely pleasing seeing ill-informed, preconceived notions dashed.  For what it’s worth, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis relays the message loud and clear: it isn’t where you come from that makes you who you are, but who you are that makes you who are, and that happiness can be found wherever you want it to be.

-Mike

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The Slammin’ Salmon (2009)

Director: Kevin Heffernan

Screenplay: Broken Lizard (Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, Erik Stolhanske)

Best known for their 2001 comedy Super Troopers, about a group of half-witted state troopers and 2006’s Beerfest in which five friends train for a secret German beer drinking competition, the Broken Lizard comedy troupe are responsible for nearly fifteen years worth of filmmaking that has retained something of a cult following.  This past December, after four years of waiting, Broken Lizard fans were finally treated to the follow up to Beerfest, The Slammin’ Salmon.

The film takes place entirely in the fictional Slammin’ Salmon, a high end Miami restaurant owned but hardly operated by former heavyweight boxer and current moron Cleon Salmon, aka “The Champ” (Michael Clarke Duncan).  When The Champ finds himself $20,000 in debt to a Yakuza boss, he orders meek and insecure  restaurant manager Rich (Kevin Heffernan), to ensure that the restaurants’s receipts for that evening bring in the much needed cash.  Faced with either bringing in the money or having “his ass shoved up his ass” by The Champ, Rich enlists the help of the Salmon’s wait staff, promising a stay at a luxury spa for the waiter or waitress who brings in the most business for the evening.  This motivational tactic is later upped by The Champ himself to ten thousand dollars when he discovers that the receipts are not growing fast enough.  From this point onward, the story hits the same note over and over with few to no worthwhile changes.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I have seen all the Broken Lizard films, with the exception of their first effort, 1996’s ill received Puddle Cruiser, and that I would consider myself a fan of their work.  In fact, Beerfest is a film that I initially hated, but now ranks as one of my favourite comedies to watch whenever I’m in the mood for something fun and easy.  However, what saved films like Beerfest and 2004’s Club Dread from simply being stupid comedies, is that their moments of stupidity actually translated into laughs.  There was a no pressure feel to their approach that was content in generally being goofy and nonsensical, whether the audience laughed or not.  The Slammin’ Salmon seems to be the opposite of that.  It grovels and pleads for laughs, throwing out everything it can in the process and amounting to a hollow, formulaic retread of the spontaneity seen in earlier Broken Lizard works.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the Broken Lizard gang isn’t out to make deeply compelling and life altering cinema.  They’ve never made a pretentious film in their lives and that sort of carefree attitude is actually quite refreshing.  They’re in it strictly for the laughs, and if those laughs are provided, then things like a less than stellar story can sometimes be overlooked.  Unfortunately, as a result of the general lack of laughs, The Slammin’ Salmon fails to achieve its one and only objective.  Perhaps this change in output can be attributed to Kevin Heffernan, who made his directorial debut with Salmon, taking the helm from far more experienced and usual Broken Lizard director Jay Chandrasekhar.  Or maybe it’s a matter of the film’s single location serving to amplify the repetitiveness of the script itself.  Whatever the case may be, as a Broken Lizard fan, I would have been far more pleased to see them return after four years with the much whispered about sequel to Beerfest: Potfest.

Don’t judge.  We all need a few nice, easy laughs now and then.

-Mike

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IMDb Top 250: The Sting (1973)

WIPE VS. IMDb

(Warning: If you haven’t seen the film, there may be spoilers below.)

Director: George Roy Hill

Screenplay: David S. Ward

IMDb rank: #99

IMDb user quote: “The caper movie uber alles . . . A magical plot, dead on art direction, brilliant supporting roles (most notably Robert Shaw, ya falla?), and the guiding hand of Redford/Newman chemistry make this one of Hollywood’s great films.” – moman818, from Los Angeles, 10/10 review

Wipe’s take: The Sting marks the second and final pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman, an enduringly popular duo whose initial collaboration Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) – also directed by George Roy Hill – currently sits at #148 on the IMDb top 250. It came as a bit of a surprise when The Sting took home an armful of Oscars in the spring of 1974, including Best Picture (it had been virtually shut out of the Golden Globes, earning only a screenplay nomination); however, by this time the film, a late-December-’73 release, had struck it big at the box-office and started a sensation on the Billboard charts with its soundtrack, composed mainly of old Scott Joplin piano rags adapted by Oscar-winner Marvin Hamlisch.* Today The Sting appears to have lost little of its ability to charm audiences, who remain enthralled by the Redford-Newman iconography, and perhaps even more so by the film’s playfully convoluted plot, which is divided into segments (“The Set-Up”; “The Hook”; “The Tale”; etc.) detailing the various stages leading up to the film’s climactic con (“The Sting”). As in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the keyword for The Sting is “fun”; its champions are most likely to laud the film as a supreme example of “pure entertainment.”

Viewing The Sting for the first time recently, I was indeed entertained, if not supremely so. I doubt I’m alone in confessing a penchant for films in which the characters hatch a plan that unfolds in carefully delineated stages towards some tremendously rousing payoff (I’m thinking not only of caper flicks but of prison-break perennials like The Great Escape [IMDb #100], The Bridge on the River Kwai [#70], and The Shawshank Redemption [#1]). The Sting follows this line of plotting admirably (it certainly had me “hooked,” to use the con-man parlance), except I would hesitate to call its climax rousing. When we finally reach the point at which the con-men played by Redford and Newman swindle the gangster Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) out of a half-million dollars, the victory occurs rather hastily (taking place within the last ten minutes of the film) and with surprisingly little fanfare.

Perhaps this is to the film’s credit. In an age where Soderbergh’s glitzy, preening Ocean’s trilogy sets the standard for its genre, it’s certainly nice to look back at a caper film with the good grace to underplay its climactic grift, and with the modesty not to bask in its own cleverness for too long. When Redford’s character declines his cut of the big score, telling Newman “Nah, I’d only blow it,” it’s a sign that both the character and the film itself basically mean well – for neither does it seem ultimately about the money, but rather about the humble rewards of pulling off a great story. (Actually, in the Redford character’s case it’s also about earning retribution for a pal Lonnegan had murdered. Almost forgot about that. Probably because the film’s so darn good-natured you tend to overlook the grisly murders that occasionally crop up.)

One other aspect of The Sting intrigues me, and that’s the handsomeness of Redford and Newman in contradistinction to practically all the rest of the major cast onscreen. Now, obviously, one expects that the best-looking people in the average Hollywood film will be its stars (except where Judd Apatow is concerned), but there seemed something especially pronounced about the unattractiveness of everybody but Redford and Newman in The Sting. (It also doesn’t help that Redford never looked fitter than he does in this film. Wow he’s dashing.) I’m not the first person to notice that the two lead women in The Sting are not what you’d call “conventionally attractive.” This wouldn’t bother me at all if one of these women didn’t happen to turn out to be a treacherous assassin (knew she was funny-looking for a reason!), and if the other weren’t relegated to a very unimportant role, despite the fact she’s playing Newman’s live-in love interest (knew she wouldn’t get much screen time!). Meanwhile, Robert Shaw’s character is made noticeably less attractive by means of a padded hunchback (if I’m not mistaken), and by a herky-jerky limp (which, in fairness, Shaw brought with him to the set from a recent handball accident).

Again, I should not be shocked that Redford and Newman turn out to be the most beautiful people in the cast. But I did detect a little more effort than usual put into foregrounding their beauty by surrounding them with mortal-looking people. (Plus I’m not even sure the two actors share many shots together. Better to admire them in separate close-ups I guess.) Even if I’m right, and this is the machinery of movie-star vanity at work, it hardly overwhelms the picture, which, as I previously stated, is pleasantly modest in tone and approach.

Does the movie merit top-250 status? I would say no, but it does belong near the top of any person’s list of “Movies with Impossibly Attractive Male Leads.”

-Cam

* Hamlisch’s score is often credited with reviving a ragtime craze in America, but the truth is that Joplin’s music had already enjoyed a popular resurgence a few years prior to The Sting, when Joshua Rifkin’s album of Joplin rags sold in excess of 100,000 copies in the United States. Still, the zenith of the craze has to be located in The Sting soundtrack’s reign at the top of the Billboard 2oo for five weeks in May and June of 1974. Semi-interesting footnote to all this: A Joplin biopic – called Scott Joplin – was released in 1977, starring Billy Dee Williams, and directed by Jeremy Kagan – a.k.a. the guy who would go on to direct 1983’s much-maligned The Sting II.

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Eldorado (2008)

Director: Bouli Lanners

Screenplay: Bouli Lanners

Touted by many as the best Belgian film of 2008, writer-director-actor Bouli Lanners’ Eldorado had me laughing within the film’s initial opening minutes.  When Yvan (Bouli Lanners) returns home from a business trip to find a burglar hiding under his bed, he demands that the intruder come out.  The burglar promptly refuses.  Yvan’s anger escalates: he stomps, he shouts, he argues with the intruder beneath the bed, but all to no effect.  The man just won’t budge.  Fast forward to the morning, and Yvan has fallen asleep in a chair, still waiting for the burglar to show himself.  Assuming that the coast is clear, the burglar scurries out from beneath the bed, but Yvan awakes and throws a heavy steel pipe at the man as he flees.  The pipe strikes the man, knocking him down the stairs and injuring him. From this point on, Yvan takes on a sweet yet humorous sympathy for the young burglar called Didier (played to a T by Fabrice Adde), feeling guilty no doubt for throwing the heavy pipe at him in the first place.  The relationship between Didier and Yvan quickly progresses and soon Didier has talked Yvan into driving him to see his parents, who live near the French border.

As far as feature films go, Eldorado is a short one, clocking in at a mere 80 minutes.  Yet for what it manages to accomplish in those 80 minutes, the film certainly deserves all the praise it has received.  For his part, Lanners had his work cut out for him: creating a credible bond between Yvan and Didier, who in addition to being a burglar is also a junkie, is no easy task.  But Lanners pulls it off with effortless aplomb, mostly because the idea that Yvan is befriending a burglar/junkie; giving him food, money and driving him to see his parents, quickly evolves in to an understanding that Yvan needs Didier just as much as Didier seems to need Yvan.  As a result, that bond between the two is so enjoyable and flecked with such an understated innocence ,that becoming lost in its genuine nature is quite effortless.

Eldorado carries with it the notion of salvation and as the film progresses, this subtext gains in weight and importance.  It’s rather crucial to take this in to consideration throughout the course of the film, though Lanners keeps the concept just low key enough as to avoid crowding out the humor of the central story line.  The film does end rather abruptly (albeit suitably abrupt for this type of story), leaving the viewer to reflect on what they’ve just seen.  If the salvation subtext is ignored, I can see why the ending could potentially annoy viewers, making them feel that no real resolution has been achieved.  This simply isn’t the case however, and the ending should be chalked up to yet another powerfully minimalistic aspect of Lanners’ superbly sweet and melancholic filmmaking.

-Mike

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Devi (The Goddess) (1960)

HAPPY 50th 1960-2010

Director: Satyajit Ray

Screenplay: Satyajit Ray

Met with controversy upon release in its native country of India, Satyajit Ray’s spellbinding Devi squarely lays the blame on superstitious religious belief for the dissolution of a family. As the film opens in late-19th-century Bengal, Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee), a young student, is departing his teenage bride Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) to return to his university studies in Calcutta. While Uma is away, Doya remains on a large property living with Uma’s father, brother, sister-in-law, and kid nephew. The widowed father Kalikinkar (Chhabi Biswas) is a devoutly religious man, and seems a bit unstable, but is blithely fond of Doya (calling her “mother” as a term of affection).

One night Kalikinkar encounters a vision in his dreams that convinces him his daughter-in-law Doya is the reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali. Shaken, the old man informs Doya of her divine status and positions her at an altar at the steps of his house, where the townspeople may come to worship her. Many are skeptical of Kalikinkar’s ravings, including Doya herself (note her scrunched toes in the image above) and her concerned sister-in-law, who keeps a watchful eye on Doya’s imposed conversion to goddess; meanwhile, the staunch rationalist Uma is stunned and angry with his father when he finds his wife objectified as a deity upon returning from Calcutta. These skeptics are challenged, however, when Doya’s “divine” presence appears to revive a peasant’s lifeless son from the dead, before everyone’s eyes. Even Doya begins to believe in her divinity, though she cannot quite say if she feels any differently inside when questioned by her husband (“Don’t you feel that you are human? Aren’t you my wife?”). It takes a tragedy within the family to expose the fallacy of Doya’s “healing” powers, and by this time many of the relationships between the central characters are irreparably damaged.

Satyajit Ray is an acclaimed master of realist filmmaking, his best loved films being perhaps the Apu Trilogy (1955-9), which took inspiration from Italian neorealism to chronicle the life of a young man growing up in South East India. A departure of sorts from the director’s realist roots, Devi proves Ray is equally adept at insinuating an atmosphere of the supernatural on film. Though we are eventually persuaded to dismiss Doya’s divinity, Ray earlier succeeds in clouding our judgment of the situation by inviting us to behold Kalikinkar’s arresting vision of Doya as the three-eyed mother goddess Kali, and by subsequently refusing to explain the apparent resurrection of the young peasant boy. There is also a spine-tingling scene set on a deserted beach – and scored with swirling, ominous music by Ali Akbar Khan – where a wide-eyed Doya, transfixed by the image of a broken down altar stuck in the sand, intuits the potentially harmful consequences of rejecting her divine calling. Here and elsewhere, Ray expressively blurs the boundary between piety and madness, confusing even the objective viewer.

This isn’t only a tale of superstitious versus rational belief, however; Ray is also concerned with mining the fraught territory of the generation gap in India, where the traditions upheld by the aged Kalikinkar clash with the modern-minded (in truth, increasingly Westernized) values embodied in his son Uma. Not surprisingly, the one who suffers most in this conflict is Doya, who essentially becomes an object of dispute between Uma and Kalikinkar, with each in his own way claiming rights to her. Critic Richard von Busack contends that “[Doya] is literally a battleground between the old and the new India”; fully cognizant of this fact, Ray locates the ineluctable tragedy of the story in the frazzled countenance of the young girl. Doya’s final, ghostly retreat from the household becomes the film’s truest vision of the uncanny: an image fit to haunt both traditional and modern India.

-Cam

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