Rosetta, The Silence, Dogma & Iranian Film

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Symphonies For the Bedeviled
ends with a pulsating life signal, just like Majid Majidi’s recent New
York Film Festival offering Color of Heaven. But unlike that Iranian
film, the effect is not treacly. Everything the directing-writing team Luc and
Jean-Pierre Dardenne do in this, their second dramatic feature, is brusque,
clean, invigorating. Their rigorous style brings a sign of life to modern movie
fiction. Throughout the 90s, such vivacity seemed possible only with the great
Iranian directors–not Majidi (a mere sentimentalist who did the also-treacly
Children of Heaven) but the great, dispassionate Mohsen Makhmalbaf and
Abbas Kiarostami. Tough-minded artists are rare in film culture; but rather
than give in to commercial blandishment, the Dardenne brothers essay the unglamorous
subject of joblessness. Together with Makhmalbaf’s newest film The Silence,
they herald a bracing, nonsentimental view of destitution. Conscienceless moviegoers
beware: both Rosetta and The Silence are profoundly political
and moral observations.

Almost as if rebuking the
trite Color of Heaven, Makhmalbaf also presents a blind child protagonist,
a 10-year-old blond-haired Tajik boy, Khorshid (Tahmineh Normativa). Though
this may partly reflect the influence of Persian poet Forough Farrokhzad (whose
unforgettable documentary The House Is Black exalted blind, leprous children
to symbolize mankind), it proves the blindness metaphor can be done either crassly
or courageously. In Makhmalbaf’s real-life fable Khorshid is continually
late to his job as an instrument-maker’s apprentice, even though it’s
the only income for him and his mother. He is always distracted by beauty–vocal,
musical, sensual–just as life also distracts Makhmalbaf from conventional
styles of storytelling. This blind boy senses the world unfolding around him
and is captivated by it; the rhythm of vehicles, wood-carvers, machinists thrill
his ears. Similarly ecstatic, Makhmalbaf vivifies what Khorshid cannot see,
then imaginatively converts those soundtrack rhythms into Beethoven’s Fifth

If you think that’s
odd, consider: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was last ingeniously used
as the bass note intro to X’s state-of-the-nation song "I’m Lost."
Also known as the Fate symphony, it was heard, memorably, in Martin Ritt’s
Conrack when the schoolteacher (Jon Voight) introduced it to impoverished
island kids as the sound of a world beyond them, evoking the enormity of their
life struggle. When those famous notes come back in different tones, on varied
instruments in Makhmalbaf’s The Silence, they still harbinger doom–the
sound of the landlord knocking to collect rent or the boss controlling workers–yet
they also sound triumphant. For Makhmalbaf it’s the West’s call of
cultural liberation. In the self-reflexive terms of Iranian cinema, it alerts
the power of imagination and strong-minded art.

The Dardennes want cinema
to be as forceful. Like the best Iranians, these Belgian former-documentary-makers
are devoted to blending verismo with fiction, seeking to change audiences’
perceptions of life and fantasy. There is no bolder experiment. But for contemporary
movie culture it’s been controversial. One could guess how good Rosetta
was when, after it won the Palm D’Or at Cannes, spoiled American tipsters
came back complaining the award didn’t go to feelgood movies by more established
filmmakers. Almodovar’s and David Lynch’s Cannes entries are fine,
but the Dardennes embarrass them with Rosetta’s clarified emotions
and bracing technique. Rosetta doesn’t separate art from politics
or emotion from morality; although void of mannerism, it doesn’t deprive
a viewer of affect. Rosetta shocks where The Straight Story and
All About My Mother
lull. (Journalists’ commitment to the status quo
is the real story behind the Cannes resentment.)

Instead of exploiting headline
topicality like Hollywood issue-mongers, the Dardennes’ view is more singular,
in fact, Dostoevskian. Rosetta, like Raskolnikov, is an archetypal sufferer.
Her intelligence is not from education but spirit and will. She lives in a trailer
with her drunken slattern mother and trolls the Belgian countryside, fishing
for food, cadging for too-elusive employment. Rosetta’s plight is familiar–she’s
one of the Europeans made redundant in the new economy–but as depicted
here she represents a brand-new modern character, the desperately furious survivor.

Rather than beg your sympathy,
the Dardennes test it. Rosetta (played without affection by Emilie Dequenne)
doesn’t smile; usually mute or enraged, her other emotions only show in
private. (One remarkable scene spies on her as ego and id converse: "My
name is Rosetta. You’ve got a friend. I won’t fall in the rut.")
Not fully socialized into the world, she is constantly at war with it. Rosetta’s
impetus is a kind of preconscious rebellion, born of desire. She’s not
political, she simply wants to fit into the social order that has no place for
her. (Dostoevsky’s "He had plunged so far within himself, into so
complete an isolation, that he feared…" comes to mind.) Stomping mad
like Amy Madigan in her best role (Louis Malle’s daring, neglected working-class
expose Alamo Bay), Rosetta’s common story disputes what bourgeois
audiences are used to in movies; her crisis is global and can’t be told
often enough.

Sniffy rejection of Rosetta
only reveals social indifference. Cannes journalists who jumped all over jury
president David Cronenberg’s decision prefer Cronenberg’s unreal movies
to the new rough, disillusioned view he awarded. Little else in current cinema
reminds you how important it is to make a living, hold a job. Rosetta
examines this truth (as Orwell did in Down and Out in Paris and London)
against the escapist vogue of almost sickeningly sentimental tales like Color
of Heaven
and La Ciudad. Praise for those films is a flimsy cover
for social contempt. David Riker’s La Ciudad means well, but its
only value is as quasi-documentary; it fails fiction’s more complex standards.
That piddling little movie doesn’t depict a "new" or "changing"
New York; all you have to do is look around you anywhere in this town
to see a truth of immigrant, multicultural experience more varied and like your
own workaday life than Riker’s homiletic "foreign film" lets
on. Riker suggests that only nonwhite, non-American-born people suffer anomie
and exploitation. The Dardennes know better, and their piercing way with that
hard truth places Rosetta among this year’s movie miracles.

Like another great team
of filmmaking siblings, Italy’s Taviani brothers, the Dardennes know the
value of their art and of social statement; their style affirms it. More
than in their fine debut, La Promesse, they apply an expressive, if austere,
technique–the handheld camera taken to heights recently confused by fake
verite. The way the Dardennes follow Rosetta and her mother’s virtually
unspoken relationship is steady and revealing–technique Blair Witch
can’t compete with. It recalls Benoit Jacquot’s skirt-chasing-cam
in A Single Girl, but repudiates Jacquot’s decadent misuse of cinema’s
latest inquiring tool.

Such single-minded style
is fearless, charging into the depths of human behavior with rare, complex results.
Dropping the inanities of romantic resolution, Rosetta is courted by a young
waffle merchant (Fabrizio Rongione) who invites her into his isolation (he plays
her tapes of his drum solo–symbolizing their unarticulated bond). Rosetta
bites Rongione’s outstretched hand–against reason, but with frightful
revelation of her dilemma. Her refusal is tied to long-withheld friendship and
heartfelt obligations too much to bear. What’s left is her diminished self,
an instinct to thrive, which the Dardennes know derives from/feeds into the
horrific social impulse to compete, annihilate, exploit–motives tied to
self-industriousness. (Issues mucked up and made erroneous in Fight Club.)
Rosetta only wants a job, and that sense of selfhood becomes a trap. The Dardennes
show that even the privilege of work does harm–it warps. Rosetta
is nothing so banal as a good yarn; it’s a slice of the crucial.

The Silence

directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Although A Moment of Innocence
might be the greatest Iranian film (or at least the best ever to receive commercial
distribution in the U.S.), The Silence demonstrates Makhmalbaf’s
high-flying artistry well enough. It resists the postcard quality of his lovely
yet overpraised 1996 Gabbeh and that’s because, like Rosetta,
The Silence pursues intimate sociological awareness. Not the incomprehensible
silence of David Riker’s patronized Mexican immigrants (a cast of the barely
articulate downtrodden), The Silence discloses little Khorshid’s
serenity–what might be termed The Dreamlife of Angels. Makhmalbaf’s
poor have individual distinction; the title The Silence also refers to
his respect for their interior lives–the peace in their heads.

Makhmalbaf’s sound-and-image
details of the exterior world enliven Khorshid’s imagination. He presents
a child’s fantasy as a means of celebrating what to insensate adults (or
average filmmakers) would be dull realism. This heightens the impact of poverty
and labor. Khorshid and the other children at work produce sounds that could
be either their dread fate or a source of beauty. (Your choice is philosophical.)
Khorshid, a bee collector, recites a song about bees landing on flowers or dung;
he hears another about "the enchained man/the master of destiny/the wise
man/the fool/both are me," learning life’s complexity. In this way
Makhmalbaf’s insistent political perspective transforms social critique
into beauteous analogies.

Ever the esthete, Makhmalbaf
converts the Dardennes’ sense of social realism into spiritual efflorescence.
His vision is no less demanding, though it might be mistaken for gloss (as many
understandably took his Persian-carpet fantasy Gabbeh for a travelogue).
Yet The Silence maintains the schizo cultural paranoia of Makhmalbaf’s
earlier radical films. When Khorshid gropes toward one musical source, it’s
a soldier playing an oud while carrying a rifle next to a war memorial–cultural
irony, political risk.

If Kiarostami is the Godard
of the Iranian movement, Makhmalbaf is its Truffaut (and only a fool would argue
either’s superiority). That makes Makhmalbaf the more romantic and accessible
and plangent. Finding the emotional consonance between Iranian and Tajik culture,
The Silence is a sensual extravaganza; Ebrahim Ghafori lights each shot
for memorization. Past the lines of fruit peddlers or the group of child musicians
practicing the Fifth Symphony, Khorshid walks us through Muslim tradition. His
girlfriend and fellow child-laborer Nadereh (Nadereh Abdelahyeva) is not blind,
but when she uses two-stemmed cherries for earrings and pastes the petals of
radish-red flowers on her fingernails, miming loveliness in her purple costume,
the spectacle makes her imaginary world timeless. (Innocence gives her what
Rosetta lacks.) Makhmalbaf uses faces and costumes to put folk culture into
visual consideration, foremost in our consciousness. From the plink of rain
playing an oud’s strings, dissociated sounds of nature, the strained breathing
to the tensed neck of a young cart-puller, music is everywhere, cohering everything.

The only American movie
comparably tough-minded and insightful about restorative social customs developed
out of dire political necessities is Charles Burnett’s superb short When
It Rains
–a mini-symphony of political sympathies. Although The Silence
is structurally inferior to it, Makhmalbaf’s emotionally diffuse technique
has similar emotive/revolutionary purposes. He attempts something as radical
as Burnett and the Dardennes, which is to convey nonbourgeois experience through
all the cinema’s richest resources. The uniqueness of this concern demonstrates
how insensitive and unimaginative and politically reticent movies typically
are. You won’t see a better film this year than A Moment of Innocence
(which I reviewed back in June of 1997), but Rosetta, The Silence–and
When It Rains–advance cinema’s empathetic potential. Each movie
spotlights society’s most sympathetic figures (hard-luck strivers) and
its certifiable villains (landlords and bosses). In Beethoven’s spirit,
these filmmakers shake their fists at the world, then raise their fists to life.

on Heaven’s Door. Josef von Sternberg also used Beethoven’s Fifth
to underscore Raskolnikov’s tragedy in his 1935 film version of Crime
and Punishment
(showing Nov. 23 as part of Film Forum’s "Columbia
75" retrospective). A high/low classic, it combines Cliffs Notes brevity
with populist sincerity. A portrait of Beethoven faces one of Napoleon, displaying
Raskolnikov’s psychological split. In Peter Lorre’s unforgettable
performance, intellectual pride verges on murderous mania. (It was the witty
source of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Boris Badenov.) Lorre grounds Dostoevsky’s
story of crushed ambition in undeniable soulfulness. This gorgeous new print–preserving
the luminosity of Sternberg’s compositions–rewards your attendance.