Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Ingmar Bergman's "The Touch" and Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point"

It is a sad coincidence that two great European directors died on successive days. Swedish film director, Ingmar Bergmann, died at the age of 89, on July 30, 2007. Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni died on July 31, 2007 at the age of 94. The Swede and the Italian had their own distinct styles of filmmaking. What they had in common was a deep sense of humanism, which was typically European, derived from the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is a tragedy-tinged humanism, where human beings were perceived to be alone and frail, but who had this wonderful ability to love and be compassionate. They were also base, cold and vengeful. There is a powerful clarity in this tragic vision of humanity, and these two directors potrayed it wonderfully. Interestingly, Bergman and Antononioni had each made an English language film, which I happened to see in the 1970s along wth friend and film buff, Jugu Abraham, when we were undergraduates in Loyola College in Madras (now Chennai).

Two images from "Zabriskie Point" stay in mind. One is that the name of the hero of the film is Marx. Not Groucho, but Karl, Marx! Antononioni tried to capture the protest of the counter-culture movement in the United States of those days, and he tried to find a political angle. There were too few Marxists among the hippies on the American campuses of those days. But we hear hectic discussions about Marx and the exploitation in America in the film. Towards the end of the film the hero is caught in a small plane, in which he tries to take off, and the security forces on ground tell him of the futility of the attempt over the address system of the air traffic controller. He dies as bullets are pumped into him. And in the last scene of the film, the girlfriend of the hero, imagines the rich mansion of her father being blown to smithereens. The imagined scene is her way of protestig against the callous capitalism of America. At that time, I felt that it was a futile protest. But that did not take away from the beauty and poetry, from the innate sense of justice and outrage felt by the youth.

If one were to see the film again today, the terrorist attempts of some fo the Arab youth in 2001 seem to fall into the pattern of impotent rage and futile protest. Of course, the 19 Arab youths who were involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington were manipulated by cynical and cunning Islamist ideologues. But there was that undeniable element of righteous anger and protests agains the barbarism of American government in that desperate act of terrorism.

"Zabriskie Point" is quite different from Antonioni's Italian language films, which I got to see in the 1990s at a retrospective of his films at Siri Fort in New delhi in the middle of 1990s. There was both lyricism and a stately pace of story-telling in his Italian filsm which was not evident in "Zabriskie Point". There was something frenetic about "Zabriskie Point".

Bergman's English language film, "The Touch" which I saw in my final year at college, again along with my friend, Jugu John Abraham, was very much Bergmanesque. I saw it again the same year -- in 1975 -- in Calcutta (now Kolkata) -- along with my brothers. The film was about death, loneliness, sex and love. There are three scenes which still remain in memory. The first is that of the heroine of the film, Bibi Andersson, crying in an alcove in a hospital anteroom. She had just walked out of the ward where her mother had died. She had to cry in the corner in the quiet hosiptal. Elliott Gould walks in and asks her whether he could do anything. She asks him to put off the light. He puts off the light and goes away.

In another scene in the movie, Elliott Gould who is at the home of Bibi Andresson, and her husband in the film, Max von Sydow (he potrayed the role of Jesus in George Stevens' "The Greatest Story Ever Told", which I saw in Hyderabad in 1970). Gould is being shown pcitures of the family, and he turns round and asks von Sydow, "Do you have a picture of your wife in the nude". Von Sydow good-humouredly says that he has to disappoint him (Gould).

Later, Gould and Andersson are involved in a relationsip, which then peters off. When Andersson tries to talk it over with her husband, von Sydow gives her a clinical, rational lecture about the need to take responsibility for one's actions.

Jugu wrote about the film in our college magazine, and argued how it was superior to a Hindi film released at the time, Gulzar's "Achanak", starring Vinod Khanna. I wrote a strong rejoinder in the magazine, saying that Bergman's film was inhuman compared to that of Gulzar's. Of course, now I can see that Bergman was portraying the inhumanity of 20th century European bourgeois life, which is still to be seen in many of the contemporary Scandinavian films as well. And perhaps I still feel that Hindi films are warm in their portrayal of human beings. This has to do with the cultural rootedness of our lives. The thread is broken in Europe, and they feel lonely and disconsolate.

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