Sunday, June 03, 2007

Eastern Europe, part I

The films, in order of viewing:

The beginning

What came first -- soccer or cinema? The answer from both a historical and personal perspective is soccer. There are recorded instances of soccer played in a professional and organized manner before the 1880's whereas, the first cinematic work is attributed to the Lumière brothers shorts in 1895. On a personal term, I had kicked a ball and played a crude form of soccer before I ever discovered movies. So it is not a surprize then that I first learned of Eastern Europe from soccer. While watching highlights of previous World Cups, I was first introduced to the magical Hungarian team of 1954, the strength of the Polish squad from 1982, the technical brilliance of the Soviets, the high-scoring Yugoslavian team of 1974 (a 9-0 rout over Zaire) & the dazzling skill of Romania's Gheorghe Hagi. The goals & the moves became part of my memory.


Over time, our memories fragment. We can only recall certain events from the past. Sometimes, we can't even remember the past but only certain feelings an event caused in us. In the olden times, people told stories to keep the past alive. With the advent of video camera, people used them to record the images from their day to day lives. At the start of Lucian Pintilie's energetic madcap film The Oak we find Nela (played by Maia Morgenstern) doing just that. As her father is lying dead next to her, Nela is looking at old video footage of an apparent happy past with her father in communist Romania. It turns out her memories of her father were not in keeping with the truth. So she undertakes a journey of discovery & truth across the crumbling Romanian landscape while keeping her father's ashes in a coffee jar next to her. She comes across bizarre situations, is almost raped but finds a savior & friend in a kind doctor, Mitica (Razvan Vasilescu). Mitica is trapped in an absurd corrupt world and fights to keep his hospital running despite the ensuing madness around him. Watching his character, one can understand the insanity of the medical system in Cristi Puiu's brilliant film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. In the end, both Nela and Mitica are outcasts in a crumbling nation -- a country which is finally lifting the veils of communism and is trying to rebuild itself. But before the rebuilding can take place, chaos and corruption run amok.

Collapse & break-up of a nation:

Soccer is a team sport and anyone who has ever played it knows that one person can't win the game alone. Even though at times, the headlines declares one person to be a hero but over a 90 minute game it takes a united effort to get a result. So it is essential that all 11 players work together. If a team is divided into various factions, then it is unlikely the team will succeed. A national soccer team is compromised of players who come from different regional clubs. More often that not, when it comes to the game, players get on with the job & ignore any regional problems. Sure sometimes, they might not pass the ball to a certain player but over a 90 minute period, things appear fine. The regional problems happen off field when the coaches are inclined to pick only some players from a certain region (the problem was common in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet republic where players were only picked from a select few clubs). And if a nation is on the verge of conflict, then a tiny spark can ignite the hatred and a team can easily be divided as nations are.

"A war is not a war until a brother has killed a brother" -- this is a memorable quote from Emir Kusturica's vibrant and pulsating film Underground which shows the break-up and collapse of Yugoslavia. Underground is divided into three stages -- The War (second world war), the Cold War and The War (1990 onwards). The film is seen from the eyes of two friends, Marko and Blacky. They start out fighting for a common cause but eventually go their separate ways -- Marko ends up being a profiteer working the black market for weapons and Blacky becomes the war hero fighting for his nation's independence. Backed by surrealist images and colorful characters (like the smart monkey who can handle a tank), this is a fascinating journey through a nation's mistakes and eventual decline. The film starts and ends with infectious music which lends a light mood to the dark tragedies that unfold. The final scene of the film involves all the main characters on a piece of land that breaks away from its surroundings and becomes an isolated island floating off. That is what literally happened to Yugoslavia, a nation that split apart and resulted in independent countries each with their own soccer teams. Even as the island is floating away, the music keeps on playing and Marko is still dancing. Marko's urge to dance no matter how gloomy his situation is an image that is hard to erase.


Once upon a time, I was fascinated by the powerful Red Star Belgrade team. They had some of the best players in the world and could play wonderful football. But all that changed when they reached the 1991 European Cup final against Marseille, another team which played vibrant football. For whatever reasons, both teams played the most boring final in history, ending 0-0 with Red Star winning on penalties. I thought the team was united. But as Jonathan Wilson points out in Behind the Curtain one member of the team, the brilliant Robert Prosinečki, might have found himself on the outside. While his team-mates were mostly Serbian, Prosinečki was Croatian. When Yugoslavia dissolved as a country, Prosinečki went to play for Croatia while his former team-mates started for Serbia.

Isolation can occur for various reasons -- society can ignore certain members because of religion, race or whatever reason they can come up with. Sometimes, a simple reason such a person's attitude is cause enough for isolation. András, the lead character in Béla Tarr's film The Outsider finds himself at odds with his local Hungarian society. András is a 20 something youngster who loves music, drifts from job to job, does not want to be committed in a relationship. What's wrong with that? Everything!! Especially if the society around you wants people to work for the common national good, then one person's indifference won't be tolerated. In Tarr's Budapest, men meet in cafes after a long day's hard work and discuss politics. If people in a factory are too efficient, they are asked to adhere to the normal working pace so that everyone gets paid the same. That is equivalent to asking a fast soccer player to slow down to keep in sync with his team's slow passes. Such a system can work for some people but for others, it is a problem. The only positive in András's life is the love for his music which keeps him happy.

The 11 year old boy in the Polish film Jestem is made an outsider to society because of circumstances. His mother does not have time for him as she is busy sleeping around and smoking away. As a result, the boy is left to fend for himself and live on the streets. No matter how hard he tries, he can't escape the taunts and insults of other boys. Forced to hide, he finds refuge in an abandoned ship across from a rich family's home. Even though the material is bleak with sad music haunting the screen, Jestem (I Am) is a beautifully shot film which echoes like a modern day Dickens novel set in Poland.


People need some distraction to balance the stress and nonsense of everyday life. Music serves as such a relaxation for some. András is able to find some harmony in his life by balancing his love for classical music with the new emerging Western music being ushered in Budapest clubs. Whenever the infectious music comes on in Kusturica's film Undergound, the characters forget their worries and let loose, dancing away their pain. In a similar manner, the bleak Romanian country side in the film The Oak is a little easier to navigate after some drinks and gypsy music.

Sins and a human life:

You can give them music, drink, soccer, love, art but still humans are not happy. They commit sins and despite knowing the consequences, can't help but being vain. So what is one to do? One can pass judgment or one can quietly observe their follies. The latter is the case with Kieslowski's 10 films of The Decalogue. All the films are set in the same Polish apartment complex with characters from one film appearing in another. The films range from dark to light, with the first film being one of the most tragic and the 10th film being the lightest. There is something for everyone's cinematic tastes to be found here with stories ranging from parental relationships, husband-wife affairs, coming of age story, incest, capital punishment, war crimes and obsessive hobbies.

There is no one-to-one relationship with one commandment in each film as sometimes multiple commandments are broken in one movie. But what is clear is the underlying issue of ethics and morality. In each film the characters are faced with choices -- they can act either according to their needs or to what society tells them to do. How they try to cope with their desires, urges and feelings while living in a regulated society forms a theme of most of the films.

The 10 films may be set in Poland but they are stripped of any national details and can be set in any nation around the world. As a result, The Decalogue is the most universal work of all the films seen and the one least likely to be studied as part of a nation's state.

1 comment:

Pacze Moj said...

What an excellent post, Sachin.

I'm not even sure what to call it: film criticism, history, soccer-related. All three, most likely (teamwork!). And the writing's so fluid and delicate, too. So much of online film writing seems to be aggressive, but this is so calm. Considering the volatile history of Eastern Europe, quite a nice change of pace (more Riquelme than Messi!).

I hope you explore more nations, areas, peoples in this way!