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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: The Past Today


The Deep Blue Sea

This Is Not a Film 

From Israel comes a film of contrasts. Footnote uses sophisticated style to deal with an ancient subject. Joseph Cedar, the writer-director, tells a story about Talmudic studies and couches it in cinematic brio. This verve also counterpoints the drama. Along with the talk about deep scholarship comes this visual approach that is a kind of modern complement. The style seems to say—through agile intercutting and special effects—that the subject is contemporary, no matter how long ago it began.

The two leading characters are Eliezer Shkolnik and his son Uriel, both professors of Talmudic studies in Jerusalem, both eminent. The nub of the story is given to us neatly at the start. Both professors are at a meeting where a new member is to be inducted into an institute. The camera is on Eliezer. The speaker lauds the brilliance of the new member, then announces his name. The new man is not Eliezer but Uriel. The camera holds on Eliezer as he listens to Uriel’s acceptance speech and as he tries to fix a public countenance. (The son is bearded, not the father.)

Father-son tensions are familiar in drama. (Arthur Miller thrived on them.) Here they have a particular wrench: the two men, linked deeply, are not only engaged in what is basically religious work; they are also members of an ancient culture that is part of a relatively new nation’s structure.

Uriel is more concerned about his father than vice versa, possibly because he knows that his own work is better than his father’s. His discomfort comes to a head when a governmental mistake is made. An official calls a Professor Shkolnik to tell him that he has been awarded the Israel Prize and telephones the wrong Professor S. The call was intended for the son but was made to the father.

Uriel is swiftly summoned to a meeting where he is informed of the error. He asks the committee to give the prize to his father instead. This scene, well set by Cedar in a small crowded room, becomes a ragout of egotisms. An old professional enemy of Eliezer’s who is on the prize jury at last agrees to the shift, which will of course be kept secret from Eliezer. But soon after the father learns that he is the winner, he finds a reason to suspect that some sort of arrangement has been made.

Although there is discussion of scholarly process, interesting enough in itself, the film is about the two men as men. Uriel is characterized more fully and, through his activities, shows us more of the city itself to which he feels responsible. Lior Ashkenazi is believably stressed in the role. Shlomo Bar-Aba, as the father, needs a smaller emotional compass but, tacitly for the most part, conveys the man’s painfully mixed and restrained feelings.

Much of the dialogue, to judge by subtitles, is pithy, particularly the scenes between Uriel and his perceptive wife. Also Uriel has troubles with his teenage son that seem fate’s inevitable taunt because of his own role as son.

For all its virtues, which are engaging, Cedar’s screenplay has fissures. Some subjects are raised to no apparent purpose—a possible affair that Eliezer may be having, the theft of Uriel’s clothes at his gym. At the last, however, Footnote is so intelligently and deftly made that we are glad it exists. A salute to the keen editor, Einat Glaser-Zarhin, and the sensitive cinematographer, Yaron Scharf, who did much for the modern texture of this film about historians.

THE DEEP BLUE SEA, a play by the British dramatist Terence Rattigan, was first produced in 1952 and has often been revived. It has a substantial leading role for a woman, and several eminent actresses have wanted it, including Vivien Leigh, who did it both on stage and on screen. Now a new film of the play appears, adapted and directed by Terence Davies with Rachel Weisz in that stellar role and with Rattigan’s work in a freshening treatment.

The story can be told easily because there is none, or almost none: it simply explores a situation. In the London of “around 1950,” Hester Collyer, fortyish wife of the mature Justice William Collyer, has had a feverish affair with Freddie Page, a former fighter pilot. Freddie now wants to move on: he has an assignment abroad and doesn’t want to take Hester with him. She, utterly distraught, attempts suicide and is brought round. The men react in character. William, proud yet generous, will take her back if that is what she wants. Freddie, not to be bullied by drama, still declines to take her with him: he has never lied to her or promised her anything. Over and over he says he has always been “on the level,” as if that took care of everything. The core of the film is Hester’s struggle to accept the facts and continue as before after her life-altering affair—or to do away with the problem and herself.

In outline, the film is a reminder of Brief Encounter, Noël Coward’s film done a few years before, in which a wife falls in love with another man and is tempted to leave. (Indeed, Celia Johnson of Brief Encounter later played Hester in Rattigan’s play.) The difference between the two pieces is notable. In Coward’s film, both lovers are truly in love, and the wife’s struggle is one of honor versus incandescence. But Rattigan’s Hester has no option to leave with her lover: she is, though she doesn’t precisely say so, maddened by the prospect of losing sexual fulfillment. Coward’s piece is more immediately touching; Rattigan’s is much more stern, with less sentiment and some harsh truth. This is not to say that Rattigan is a latter-day Ibsen, only that he is concerned less with Kleenex usage than with actual experience. (He spent his life turning serious subjects into conventional plays—for instance, Ross and The Winslow Boy.)

Rachel Weisz is an almost complete Hester. If she is never overpowering, she has a frankness of response and a vulnerability that are endearing. Tom Hiddleston is exact as the Fred who feels he has done his duty if he never lied to her. Simon Russell Beale, a stalwart of the English stage, is a perfect William, the acme of dignified devotion.

Davies, who is now sixty-six and has made only seven films in his long career, has transformed the one-set Rattigan play into a well-flexed film with imaginative lifts along the way. After the suicide attempt at the start, we get a swift visual ruffle through the events that led up to it. Several times the dialogue is pointedly covered by the music track as the characters move through, integrating them into the film’s being. A crowd on an underground station platform becomes a sort of frieze. And Davies has actually found a new perspective for filming sexual intercourse.

RECENTLY, WITH The Hunter, we wondered at the fact that out of Iran came a film critical of matters there. That was far from the whole of the Iranian film situation. Here is This Is Not a Film by Jafar Panahi.

Panahi, world-recognized for such films as The White Balloon, made this latest picture in his Tehran apartment. Its title is his ironic defense against a ban on his film-making. When we meet him, he is talking to his lawyer, who is appealing the governmental ban on his work and a pending six-year prison sentence, all brought on by his support of an opposition political party.

Panahi wanted to work, and he wanted to protest. A friend agreed to handle the camera and the sound—the friend is another director named Mojtaba Mirtahmasb—and is the only other person involved in the picture’s making, while Panahi moves around the apartment mostly addressing the camera. He has in his hands the screenplay of the next film he wanted to make, and he argues, with gentle bitterness, that if he just tells us the story, he won’t be making a film, and thus will not be violating the court’s order. But as he and we know, he is making a film and shaming the court’s order. Besides some drinking of tea and some chat in passing, not much more happens in the picture except that he shows us his only way of leaving the building—with the trash.

This film is unique in a dreadful way: what happens on screen would not be particularly interesting without the facts surrounding its making. As is, it is a forlorn heartbreaker. It was smuggled out of Iran in a cake, was shown at Cannes and other festivals, and has aroused strong protests against Iran from film-makers around the world. Panahi is now in prison, and his collaborator is also in governmental trouble. No matter how loud the protests, it is unlikely that they will help Panahi, hence forlorn. Still, how can we not protest? A dilemma still much too familiar. 

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the April 19, 2012 issue of the magazine.