Mumbai Film Festival

Abhijit Ghosh-Dastidar

The screening series mounted by Jio-Mumbai Academy of Moving Images at their 21st Mumbai Film Festival (Oct 2019) embraced compelling films, with clear-eyed obsessions. The film essays extended from Discovering India, Egyptian Cinema, Marathi Talkies, Restored Classics, French Rendezvous to World Cinema.

"The Cremator" (1968-1969, Czechoslovakia, b/w, 97 mins) by Juraj Herz was banned, and later digitally restored at Metrograph in 1973. Shot in black and white, and set in Prague in the 1930s, the script is by Herz and Ladislav Fuks, who wrote the original novel. The film is a disquieting mix of satire and horror, filled with inexplicable characters, seen in fragmentary close-ups or through distorted lens. The creepy protagonist, Karel Kopfringl (Rudolf Hrunsky) is a petty bourgeois monster, an abstinent and authoritarian mortician, who lords over his wife and children, as well as an impressive crematory, that he calls the "Temple of death". The film is set at the time when Czechoslovakia is increasingly coming under German influence, and became a protectorate in 1939. Kopfrking's worldview is altered by former comrade-in-arms Walter Reinke, who arrives in Prague, in advance of Hitler's army. He incorporates Nazi theories and racial purity into his own philosophy. As he falls under Reinke's spll, he becomes an apostle of cremation, presiding over the death of Czechoslovakia. Along with his doting wife, Marie (Vlasta Chramostova) he does good business, because death is the most consistent racket. As a visionary, he is hooked on Tibetan Buddhism, expounded in a book with Lhasa's Potala Palace on the cover. He believes that cremation is his holy mission, since it releases the soul to go forth into the ether and recycle itself. The film has anti-realist execution in the brutal political times. Kopfrkingl's interpretation of Buddhism, added to his bourgeois self-interest and his preoccupation with all things carnal and morbid, reach a poisonous biting point, when added to the rise of Fascism in Europe.

"Varda by Agnes" (France, 115 mins, colour, 2019) by Agnes Varda, is the director's personal brand, an overview of Varda's career, that takes the form of a filmed master class. The eccentric ramble through her past, the docu-memoir focuses on life, as on work. The clips and commentary, stretch from "Cleo from 5 to 7" to "Vagabound", to "The Gleaners and I". In simple linear, if not quite chronological, Varda talks through her output, one professional chapter at a time. Seated in her signature branded director's chair, Varda holds court in a theatre filled with besotted young film buffs and scholars, in a monologue mode. The second hour of the film, shifts to Varda's work as a visual and installation artist. A sea-shelled spangled grave is constructed for Varda's late cat Zgougou, relocated to a Parisian museum site. Sandrine Bonnaire, the "Vagabound" star returns for a latter day interview with Varda. As a visual and installation artist, Varda models a potato costume. Indoor panels, on which one film or more than one film are projected, reflect a multi-dimensional collage. Engaging social commentaries emerge in the stylistic palette.

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Vol. 52, No. 25, Dec 22 - 28, 2019