Old Age By K.N.T. Sastry

in 57th Mannheim-Heidelberg

by K.N.T. Sastry

It was heartening to note that a number of films both in and out of competition at the Mannheim-Heidelberg festival dealt with the problem of old age — as if this problem is haunting young filmmakers! Maybe they are trying to ponder the relationships they themselves have lost in the course of being modern, keeping abreast with the trends.

Awakening From a Dream (El amenecer de un sueño), from Spanish director Freddy Nass Franqueza, was one such film where the director mulls the relationships between a mother and a son, and a grandfather and a son, even as the characters reminiscence about how grandpa raised his own daughter. The boy is left to the care of a worldly wise woman who just brings her son and asks her father — the boy’s grandpa — to look after him. While the older man seems happy to care for the child, contrast this with the mother’s attitude and we find a world of difference. But then, the relationship between the grandson and grandpa is not very smooth, either. There is conflict as the boy grows up and the old man falls victim to Alzheimer’s disease, necessitating the young fellow to look after his grandpa until his death. His effort to go back to a mother who refuses to recognize him only mirrors the value of relationships lost in a world where the mother-son bond seems to be just not there! As the old man, the actor Héctor Alterio brings out the nuances of this relationship in a strong manner. This is especially evident when the film finds him taking the boy out for a game, acting as a surrogate father.

The same actor, Alterio, appeared in another film in the competition, A Tram in SP (Un poco de chocolate), also from Spain, by Aitzol Aramaio, where the values of relationships come alive which the modern world is losing. Lucas, played by Alterio with an infectiously friendly attitude, is released from hospital after a long coma, refusing to believe he has grown old. He lives in his past; the vision of his girlfriend Rosa, when she was young, haunts him — the memory of her travelling in a tram, waving goodbye, continues to charm this old man. He refuses to accept the reality of the present. It is his friends from the past, apparently, who matter the most to him as he basks in the glory of sea and sand after being brought from the hospital to the wonderful atmosphere of a home on the Basque coast. It is into this realm that a young boy, Marcos, ventures, and the two generations of Lucas and Marcos provide a beautiful assessment of the disappearing family and romantic values in the modern world. A charming presentation indeed.

Similar relationship issues were apparent in two more films, both of which were programmed in the international discoveries section.

Miika Soini’s Finnish drama Thomas is a refreshing film about euthanasia. The right to die in a dignified manner is an issue debated in courtrooms around the world many times over. While there are strong arguments for and against the matter, this film considers the dilemma of aging as well. The protagonist, Thomas (Lasse Pöysti), is an ardent chess player. One day, when his brother declines his invitation to their regular chess game, Thomas prophetically declares that his brother must be are afraid of death. In the very next scene, his brother falls to his death, and old Thomas is taken aback; he confines himself to his room, going out only rarely. But then he encounters a stranger in a park, and in a subsequent meeting the man asks Thomas whether he is not the one who was convicted by him — a judge — in a case of euthanasia!

The film confronts the indignities of old age in a striking manner, even as it asks why society cannot offer its elderly the right to die with dignity rather than becoming vegetative and dependent on others for the most basic tasks. The film’s imagery immediately evokes sympathy and devotion; it is, again, a film about relationships in an ever-changing milieu.

Yet another film — this one part of the competition — to evoke a reflective attitude on relationships was Cycles (Les murs porteurs) by Cyril Gelblat. While the film tried to bring into focus the dilemmas and dogmas of three generations, it failed to be a moving account of the problems that continue to confront the European population. In fact while delving into the problems of old age and the generation gap between the sons and their progeny, concentrating on crafting a sort of family portrait, it appears to have lost its moorings — but then, this is a film which tries to define the meaning of family, especially once the children have grown up and their parents grown old. Again, the problems and dilemmas of the elderly are addressed in this film, albeit in a more distracted manner. It is the question of deciding on the fate of a woman who can no longer live on her own, a question that confronts not only the youngest family member in the film, but refers on a larger scale to the entire panorama of relationships available in modern society. The film has a very strong cast — including Miou Miou, Charles Berling and the Italian actor Giovanna Mezzogiorno — which gives Cycles the form and feel of a commercial venture, but it remains a film about relationships within a family, related to the wider world in a beautiful and yet amusing manner.

While the above films dealt with old age, using it as peg on which to hang their stories, other films in the festival dealt with relationships in a strong manner. One such film was Borderline, from Canada, which was very expressive — its heroine, Kiki (Isabelle Blais) playing a woman struggling to balance her responsibilities to her family with a pointless affair she’s initiated with her teacher. In a perfect debut, director Lyne Charlebois jumps back and forth in time to create a cinematic equivalent of Kiki’s consciousness.

Charlebois has defined her film as “a love story about the most complicated love, the hardest in principle, the love of oneself”. Be that as it may, Kiki’s teacher, Tcheky, has his own priorities: Though he continues his adulterous relationship with Kiki, his real concerns lie with his own wife and child. The film follows Kiki’s an attempt to redefine and reinvent her life. Though the director uses a lot of erotic imagery — which may make the film seem a wee bit commercial — the offbeat nature of the storytelling redeems it, as one of the finest works of a debut director with a strong belief in what she is saying.

I would like to dwell upon yet another film from the competition, One Shot, from Denmark by Linda Wendel. Presented in what is known as “dogma” style, the film tells the entire story in a single shot. It is, again, about relationships within and outside the family. The Internet girl who bares her body to the Internet audience for a price, a hippie mother who continues a relationship with her aging lover, and the secret lover who ultimately turns out to be the girl’s father bring the film a sense of candour as the director, in a well-defined, astute manner, concentrates the entire drama through the visit of the daughter to her mother’s house. The film reflects upon various conflicts of the modern day society, including children, alienated from their parents, who produce firearms (one wonders if this response is influenced by television programming) and shoot those whom they suspect of ruining their family unit. Unfortunately, within minutes the audience is able to discern the secret lover as the young girl’s father, which defuses curiosity and reveals this film as a very commonplace drama.

The lone Indian entry, Bioscope by K.M. Madhusudhanan, lost itself in an overabundance of images that failed to move the story along — and good photography along does not make a film complete. While saying this, one must acknowledge the courage of the director in keeping true to his belief in the art of cinema. Good work, indeed!

As a bonus, the festival screened Michelangelo’s Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant and Peter Zadek’s I’m an Elephant, Madame (Ich bin ein Elefant, Madame), which filled the platters of Mannheim’s cineastes.