Thursday, September 20, 2018

I Live in Fear (Akira Kurosawa), Europa '51 (Roberto Rossellini)

The impossible dream

(Warning: narrative details and plot twists explicitly discussed

Fantasy double feature: Akira Kurosawa's I Live in Fear (1955) and Roberto Rossellini's Europa '51 (1952) both ask the question: how should we deal with the man who holds extreme views on life? Humor him or condemn him? Or--unsettling thought--listen to what he has to say?

Kurosawa starts in media res, with Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune in thick old-age makeup) in the midst of a family dispute: he wants to move his entire brood (including mistresses and illegitimate children) to Brazil and his family--outside relations included--want nothing to do with the plan. It's a terrifically constructed little film that suggests the intricacies of how family disputes are legally arbitrated in Japan; Kurosawa whips scenes along in a no-nonsense pace (But when did he not do that, in the terse lean '50s?) moving the camera to underline the crucial nature of a phrase or moment, sometimes rushing in to catch a character's momentous words.  

The domestic black comedy (and much of it is funny if you can look beyond all the earnest faces) is smoke screen for what Kurosawa really wants to say: that we're all mad, the world is mad and Nakajima is the sane one among us. Presenting a man as crazy, then introducing the idea that maybe he's after all sane is a difficult sales tactic; Kurosawa in my book gave himself one challenge too many by refusing to explain how Nakajima came upon his conviction, denying us any immediate means of empathizing with his cause, presumably assuming that we all share the same anxieties about nuclear weapons. Might have been true in the '50s--Kurosawa's film was reportedly inspired by the story of two Japanese fishermen selling fish contaminated by fallout dust from hydrogen bomb testing in Bikini Atoll--but nowadays not so, North Korea notwithstanding. Kurosawa I'd say fails to account for humanity's invincible sense of complacency, a flaw the filmmaker will tackle more persuasively in Ikiru (dying man takes on apathetic bureaucracy) and Yojimbo (deadly ronin takes on gangsters in apathetic town).

What the film does have are some quietly effective performances--Dr. Harada's (Takashi Shimura) growing conviction, for one, that Nakajima isn't crazy is far more moving than Mifune's strenuous pleas--and a clever little visual motif: throughout much of the film Kurosawa (a master at depicting weather and climate) sets much of the story in sweltering summer heat. We see sundrenched exteriors, we see people constantly fanning themselves (not to mention shortened tempers and snippy replies), we see the glint of sweat beads embellishing moist skin, all this suggesting the effect of the biggest thermonuclear explosion of all, constantly detonating above our heads. At the end of the film Kurosawa tops his running gag with an unforgettable image, of Nakajima staring straight into the sun in despair, the sun staring back in all its implacable inevitable splendor. No Kurosawa doesn't convince, alas, but he gets some serious body blows in before going down. 

Roberto Rossellini's Europa '51 starts out this much right: focused on his heroine Irene (Ingrid Bergman) and why she becomes so obsessed with the poor. The film--simpler more direct than Kurosawa's--is also in many ways more deceptively subtle, Rossellini's loose almost invisible style working constantly to nudge our attention towards certain casually planted details. The way for example the camera follows Irene as she strides from one room to another instructing the help then sitting down at her dressing table to apply makeup for a dinner party: she's star of the household, the mirrors reflecting her charisma, her child Michele (Sandro Franchina) trailing behind her in a feeble attempt to call her attention. Later after Michele's accident Irene is at his bedside putting her face next to his. The camera moves imperceptibly closer (if you think about it it is angled and moves in such a way as to suggest a third person sitting at that bedside, leaning forward to better catch her words) and she recalls their time together hiding from World War 2 bombing raids. The implication: Irene wasn't always like this, in the war she was a loving caring mother shielding her child from approaching enemy planes; years of prosperity have wrought grievous change. 

How to change her--not back to what she was, but further? Rossellini's solution is swift and quietly brutal: after the child has gone to sleep Irene has a quiet discussion with her husband George (Alexander Knox); apparently the accident was no accident. George refuses to believe; she falls to the couch weeping: "We have to change our lives!" she cries. Unseen behind her the maid pops up with an alarmed expression: the husband (camera following) walks to the maid, who whispers in his ear. Without a word to Irene he leaves the room.

Rossellini constantly focuses his camera on Bergman, his star and muse (a scandalous muse--they were conducting an adulterous affair while making their films). Only the filmmaker recognizes something other directors who adore their actresses often do not: that real beauty is constantly in flux, warping in reaction to the stresses inflicted; that joy and anguish serve to bring out a woman's beauty best and a woman forged into her most extreme form* is perhaps most beautiful of all.

*(A kind of passion not unlike Joan of Arc's, of which the Dreyer version come to think of it could turn this double feature into a triple feature)

Rossellini works in a lowkey manner using the simplest materials; instead of taking up the cause of national liberation or nuclear annihilation his heroine simply looks about, sees the surrounding poor--specifically, families crowded into an apartment block and a nearby hovel, scrabbling out a living.  

Irene ends up caring for a dying woman, a prostitute named Ines (Teresa Pellati) presumably chosen to be Irene's opposite number / double in society (there but for the grace of God--). Irene finds herself in the presence of yet another death only this time as direct witness; Ines stops breathing and the camera pans down to her neck (To look for a pulse that isn't there?). Irene goes next door to inform a neighbor only the neighbor has her own problems: their son has committed a failed bank robbery and killed someone, is hiding in the apartment with his gun pointed at the family. The timing's so startling it's almost comical (the only previous foreshadowing is a newsboy fortuitously yelling details of the robbery on the streets) but Rossellini presents the twist with such urgency and matter-of-fact conviction you forget to laugh--Irene in a series of hurtling camera movements is suddenly shoving the boy out the apartment door: "Turn yourself in. I know you'll do it." The camera lingers on a long shot of the youth fleeing into the dark. 

You want to say to yourself "What the f--?" You want to agree with the police and later the doctors' verdict: "lei e pazza" she's crazy. But the camera's close identification with Irene--often seeing what she sees, feeling what she feels--keeps you in constant conflict with the more objective assessment. She's crazy but we know why she's crazy and we aren't sure we wouldn't act so crazy ourselves, given the circumstances.

As with Kurosawa's Nakajima, Irene ends up in an asylum; unlike Nakajima, Irene doesn't retreat into true insanity; she's totally aware of what's being done to her, and why. Asked for her reasons, Irene may sound evasive--she rejects communism, but when asked if she feels "a power within" wryly replies: "If I thought I had great spiritual power I would be insane and nothing more." Like Jesus when interrogated by the Pharisees you might say Irene is being vague for safety's sake, to keep from being accused of subversion or heresy. Or you might say they struggle to describe a fact within themselves that they can barely understand. 

Europa '51 ends with Irene's martyrdom but instead of pointing his camera at the sun Rossellini points it at a more eloquent object, Irene's face. As Irene, Bergman is asked to present the character's transmogrification and she's more than equal to the challenge: divine cheekbones atop swanlike neck, softlit face against iron bars--from struggling human being she's become a martyred holy figure. Her struggle is over not because Irene has achieved a state of grace but because she's achieved a state of total knowledge. The film is basically the story of a woman mired in luxury dynamited out of her position of comfort, who struggles and flails and eventually learns the true nature of people around her, not just members of the lower classes but her own. By film's end she knows everything: knows why she's there, knows why they're below adoring her, why they're below abhorring her, and she accepts it all or at least understands it all--on her face is an expression caught between a grimace and a grin. Grace when you think about it is the state where you know your true place in the universe, terrible or wonderful or both. And there you are.

First published in Businessworld 9.14.18

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