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Multi-cultural canvas

The recent film festival at Locarno, Switzerland, showcased myriad trends and emotions, writes GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.

"YOUR DAD is moving in, your love is moving out, Your daughter is taking off her braces, And you're acting like your mum. But it's okay." Pride yourself on postmodernist irony as you will. But tearjerkers will always have their appeal across the world. You see it in the blurb, and in the thunderously applauded competition entry "Okay" (Jesper Nielson: Denmark) at the Locarno International film festival (August1-11). Efficient Nete, 35, finds her orderly life going to pieces with a terminally ill father in the house. He takes his own time to die, stretching all relationships around him to breaking point. The mess regenerates the woman. She gains a new identity.

The competition section in Locarno has a character of its own. As with the other sections here, the accent is on fresh, new work, especially by young filmmakers. Independent filmmakers and risk takers get a hearing here. Moreover, with its reclassification as an A-Festival, Locarno competes with Cannes and Venice for its selection. "But," says energetic festival director Irene Bignardi (president Solari is a lone male in her feminine team), "I don't want second rate films." So take a look at the entries. "Blue Moon" (Andrea Maria Dusl: Austria) was a melodramatic travel odyssey of gangster, gunman and moll.

"Sophie!"(Michael Hoffman) had the woman dashing off on motorbike and taxi, through unimaginable sleaze for self-discovery. "One Hour Photo" (Mark Romanek) had Robin Williams playing lonely Sy Parish in a photo lab who gets hooked to the lives of the people in the pictures he develops. He sublimates his own longings through the "ideal" Yorkin family at celebratory moments of togetherness. Disaster follows the shattering of this happy conformist image. The film claims to plumb the depths of the psyche but what you get is the same old mush.

The trendy thing is to make women-oriented films, feminist in intent, if not always in impact. Here too the Western concerns differ sharply from the Eastern. Sensuality is the major preoccupation for three women who intersect at crucial moments to influence and catalyse each other in "Meisje" (A Girl: Belgium, France. The accent is on transient relationships rather than on permanent ones. "Secretary" (Steven Shainberg) wasted its well-made structure and excellent acting performances to wallow in the sado-masochistic tangle where the woman secretary serves coffee with handcuffs and makes deliberate errors to "win" her spankings!

Alain Raoust managed that leap with his painfully slow "The Cage"(France). He made that pace yield connotations on body and face, lost in the fast cuts. Anne Verrier, 25, out after serving her sentence for murder in her teens, goes up the mountains (an unstressed metaphor) to find the father of her victim, and peace thereby. Her success is reflected not in words or even interaction, but in the father finding his shadow (The opening shot panned on the shadowless man while the closing shot has his shadow stretched out before him).

The problem with Iranian films today is twofold: they have become imitative of their predecessors, but we empathise with the social problems they depict as to go easy on aesthetic evaluation.

"I am Taraneh, 15" (Rassul Sadr-Ameli) shows you how a motherless teenager with her father in prison, manages to win the model student prize in school only to have her future crumble due to a wrong choice in marriage. The boy goes off to Germany, leaving her pregnant, divorced and ostracised. However, after winning the battle to prove paternity, she decides to get the child's ID with the mother's (and not the father's) name on it. Despite moving performances by the girl (Taraneh Allidousti) and her father, the film remains stubbornly linear in structure, narrative and thought. So far not so good. But wait. It is always exciting to discover a new director who grabs you wholly as Rebecca Miller (Daughter of Arthur Miller) did with her intense, gut-wrenching "Personal Velocity". The old trilogy forms found new links to bristle with, in her treatment of three women from different backgrounds and social strata. Delia, the stunningly sexy mother of three children, must escape from the husband she loves passionately, as he gets unbearably abusive. Finding a supportive friend and waitress job is not enough. Delia gives way to despair. The camera gives you emotion in the raw without voyeurism.

And just when you think that the director cannot bring off a third part we get teasing ambiguities in Paula, whose life is saved by a man who dies in her stead. She assists a young, silent, victim of torture, who finally steals her car. Yet, Paula finds life moving within herself and the final shot is of her dancing walk to the train station. "Personal Velocity" had some rare qualities. Cinematic wholly, but girded with the writer's steel. And no, it is not an elitist "art" film. It avoids self-indulgence.

The lone Indian competition entry "Mr and Mrs Iyer" brings you Aparna Sen at her best. It was the kind of film, which engages you so wholly that it almost makes you suspend your critical faculties. And yet neither theme nor the form is new. A busload of passengers (multiculturalism in language, race, creed, caste) is coming down from the mountains to the plains.

On the journey, orthodox Meenakshi Iyer finds the wildlife photographer Raja Chowdhury helping her out with her baby. But Raja is really Jehangir, a Muslim, and Meenakshi saves his life by claiming him as her husband before Hindu extremists who raid the bus. Communal violence interrupts their journey, forcing them to halt at a forest bungalow during curfew time. The film creates a claustrophobic and menacing ambience to unfold a tender, delicate tale of love nipped in the act of budding, but not before the fragrance casts its pure spell. The images are contrasted naturally, easily. The gaze on deer herds in the forest shifts to a chase that ends in grisly murder before their eyes. Sen avoids overt violence, but makes it more powerful by showing you its effects and remnants — whether in Meenakshi's retching, or the torched village. It is the contrast of beauty and joy that makes the nightmare savage. What you remember of the butchered Muslim (played by Bhisham Sahni, author of "Tamas") is his telling his old wife that he saw her hands before he saw her face. Or his wife reminding him to take his dentures and glasses with him as he is dragged away by the terrorists. Sen's daughter Konkana Sen Sharma plays Mrs. Iyer like a Tamil born. Even the lisp is part of the new TV generated Tamil. It is easy to depict strong characters. But to show vulnerabilities and mental evolution, needs the kind of sensitivity that Konkana reveals as she goes through a range of emotions within a short span, moving literally from distaste to love.

The on-the-spot improvisations of their honeymoon by the lead pair make you yearn for the exalting tranquillity of the woods and ancient places of worship. And you ask, as Sen asks through the entire film: how is it possible for human beings to destroy their planet so consistently and thoroughly?

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