19th 10 - 2008 | 3 comments »

2008 CIFF: Heaven on Earth

Director: Deepa Mehta

2008 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

On my way to the screening of Heaven on Earth, I drove past a church at which a wedding celebration was underway. I stopped to let a grandmother pull her grandson across the road, his tiny shoes barely touching the ground, his munchkin-size suitcoat hiking up as he gripped his grandmother’s hand. A large van obscured my view of what was going on in front of the church, but I could clearly hear music with a Middle Eastern flavor. As I passed beyond the van, I took a quick look at people in a circle dancing and clapping with their arms held high. I watched this scene as long as I could in my sideview mirror, reflecting on how this neighborhood, once Swedish Lutheran, had given way to a new immigrant community that no longer worshipped Jesus Christ in the church at which they celebrated.

As Heaven on Earth began, I found myself wrapped in another celebration—this one a prewedding party of a large group of Indian women dressed beautifully in vibrant, gold-threaded saris, armfuls of bangle bracelets, and many-tiered chandelier earrings. They danced with the joyous freedom I had seen only an hour or so ago in my hometown, preparing a beautiful bride named Chand (Bollywood star Preity Zinta) for her journey to Canada to meet her bethrothed for the first time and accustom herself to life in a new country, with a new family. I felt as though I were getting a chance to see inside the experience of a family like the one I had glimpsed only briefly, and savored the possibilities that would soon unfold in the dark theatre. I expected Chand to experience many feelings that go along with being in a strange environment among strange people. But I did not expect this radiant bride to become the extremely unhappy, isolated victim of spousal abuse.

How can any bride expect their spouse to despise and abuse them? Perhaps it is more to be expected in arranged marriages that happen long distance, but Chand didn’t seem worried. The morning before her departure, Chand’s much wiser mother, awakens her to repeat a story about a cobra. Chand sasses that she’s heard the story a hundred times. “Do you remember the moral of the story?” her mother says. “Don’t mess with a cobra!” is Chand’s response. The lesson her mother really wants her to remember is to learn to yield to difficult circumstances. It sounds like Chand’s mother has seen a good many arranged marriages and observed—perhaps lived herself—the difficulties.


When Chand’s new family meets her at the airport, they remark glowingly that she is even more beautiful than her picture. Her husband-to-be, Rocky (Vanch Bardwaj), is teased by his family for being as “as shy as a girl” upon meeting Chand. When the family arrives home, Chand learns that she is to share a small, single-story house with Rocky’s parents, his sister and brother-in-law, and their two children. Chand says little and keeps her eyes downcast in shyness and obedience.

The marriage takes place almost immediately. As Chand waits for the ceremony to start, she looks out the window. “Dear God. It’s snowing!” Instead of wonder at this new experience, one of the bridal guests just says, “Oh shit.” The splendor and solemnity of the wedding ceremony made me feel this marriage was truly blessed. When the newlyweds return to their home, Chand lays expectantly on her side, still fully dressed in her wedding regalia, awaiting her husband. When he lays down, he says, “We’re not going to do anything tonight. I’m tired.” Chand, still a virgin, might be expected to be a tad bit relieved, but the look of disappointment, of worrying that she does not please Rocky, makes the scene particularly cruel.

The couple drives to Niagara Falls for a honeymoon. When Chand asks if they can take a picture of this physical wonder, Rocky says, “Only tourists take pictures.” Their first sexual embrace never happens because Rocky’s domineering mother (Balinder Johal) arrives at their room with the excuse that she had a premonition that he was in an accident. Rocky decides that he and his brother-in-law will sleep in the car, and Chand and Maji will take the room. When Chand suggests they get another room, Rocky slaps her hard across the face. Chand begins to use her imagination to retell the cobra story in her mind as a way to soothe her, take her back to India, and find a place of her own.


Life for Chand now involves the endless drudgery of working in a laundry, even though she complains to her sister-in-law and coworker Aman (Ramanjit Kaur) that she has a degree. A Jamaican coworker (Yanna McIntosh) advises her to grate a root she gives Chand into Rocky’s drink; once he drinks it, he will fall instantly in love with her. Unfortunately, the root makes Rocky pass out. When Chand tells her friend about this, she says “You have to use the whole root.” When Chand does this and pours it into some milk, a chemical reaction occurs that causes the liquid to boil. Chand runs outside and dumps it on the ground and shakes her burned hand. In silhouette, we see a cobra rise in the foreground.


The cobra will become a nuisance to Rocky’s family, but a source of solace for Chand, as it assumes the image of her husband and comes to her as the man she would like Rocky to be. One day she stays home from work, and the cobra Rocky enters her room, where they make love. When the real Rocky learns that she has been with another man—although Chand insists she was with him—he beats her savagely. A thoroughly confused Chand speaks to the cobra Rocky once more. The cobra provides her with a means to prove she is not an adulteress and gain her freedom—one, of course, that requires her to find great courage within herself.

Indians are taught that cobras are very powerful and can assume the shape of anything they wish. Chand did not make the connection between her imagination and the miraculous appearance of a cobra in Brampton, Ontario. Indeed, Rocky refused to allow her to call her mother and denied her the calling of marriage to which she had given herself willingly. Cut off from her roots, abused and reviled by her witchy mother-in-law and the men in the family, she suffered the usual fate of domestic abuse victims. The folklore of the cobra connects directly with the first scene—the celebration of the women. It is in the suppressed feminine power that Chand finds strength and a way to defeat her abusers.


Deepa Mehta, an acclaimed director, is herself is an immigrant to Canada, and the film captures the flavor of an Indian colony in a new world. Her grasp of the dynamics of domestic violence is accurate and heartfelt—every blow Rocky lands can be felt. She uses a device of shooting Rocky and Chand as a couple in monochrome, reflecting the joylessness of their marriage and the otherworldliness of Chand’s imagination. It’s hard to understand Rocky’s attitude. Is he gay? Is he angry about being forced into an arranged marriage? Does he truly not like Chand? Or women in general? He beats Chand savagely when she pushes Maji to the floor, but when he tells his parents that they will always be his first priority, we can sense his own entrapment and resentment.

The film feels a bit long and goes slack in a couple of places, because it’s hard to know exactly how much time passes between Chand’s arrival in Canada and the end of the film. And despite Chand’s assertions that she had been with no man but Rocky, the complete lack of even discreet or suggested sex scenes made it difficult for me to believe the couple had ever consummated their marriage. Mehta, however, uses extreme close-ups to great effect, practically putting the audience into the scene and Chand’s imagination. The cast, with the exception of newcomer Bardwaj, are very affecting and individual, even Geetika Sharma, who plays Aman’s daughter Loveleen with enthusiasm for her new role model, and later, with dread.

Heaven on Earth regards patriarchy with a cold, clear gaze and asserts the salvation for women—and perhaps men—through belief in feminine power. This is a tough, but ultimately uplifting film. l


10th 10 - 2008 | 3 comments »

2008 CIFF: Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Director/Writer/Animator: Nina Paley

2008 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

The great stories of civilization teach lessons and convey beliefs. Many civilizations have The Good Wife and The Prodigal Son parables. India combines these two stories in the Ramayana, an epic poem from about 1000 BC. Indians through the centuries have been told, “Be as Rama,” the prodigal son who became one of India’s great rulers, or “Be as Sita,” Rama’s good and faithful wife. American animator Nina Paley got her hands on the Ramayana after a traumatic break-up with her boyfriend Dave, and saw the story in a much different light. Her film, Sita Sings the Blues, is subtitled, “The Greatest Breakup Story Ever Told.” Since she combines the Ramayana with her own break-up, it’s anyone’s guess which story she’s talking about.

The basic story told in Sita Sings the Blues is as follows: Dasharatha was the king of Kosala, an ancient kingdom that was located in present-day Uttar Pradesh, and ruled from its capital, Ayodhya. Dasharatha had three wives named Kausalya, Kaikeyi, and Sumitra. Kausalya, the eldest queen, was the mother of the eldest son Rama. Rama was to be king when he grew to manhood. Rama married the beautiful Sita, and they were very happy.

Kaikeyi wanted her son to be king. She reminded the king that he promised to grant her two wishes. When she asked that Rama be banished for 17 years and that her son be made king, Dasharatha had to agree. Good son Rama prepared to go into the wilderness, and Sita begged to go with him. He didn’t want her to be with him in a dangerous forest filled with demons who were pestering the holy men and stamping out their fires, but she said a wife’s place is at her husband’s side. So they went off together.


Ravana, the many-headed, many-armed king of Lanka (Sri Lanka today), was said to be a very learned and wise man, though he’s always called evil because he lusted after Sita and abducted her. Hanuman, a monkey warrior, found out that Ravana had carried Sita to his palace in Lanka and told Rama that Sita wanted him to rescue her. Rama raised a monkey army, crossed a land bridge to Lanka, and defeated Ravana. But he worried that Sita had been unfaithful to him and rejected her. Dejected, Sita asked that a fire be built that she could fling herself onto. They did so, but instead of dying, Sita survived, thus proving her purity. Seventeen years having passed, the pair took a flying chariot back to Ayodhya.


Unfortunately, Rama’s subjects did not believe in Sita’s purity. Rama banished her, though she was pregnant with twin boys. She gave birth, and Rama found her again, but still doubted her purity. She asked Mother Earth to swallow her up if she was pure. Of course, the earth opened, and Sita was taken out of reach.

A bodhisattva, clearly a woman who may have been Sita, rises out of the ocean on a lotus flower, gyrating to traditional Indian music. Next to her rises a Victrola with a bird standing on it. She reaches over, bends the bird’s beak over to play the record, and we hear the voice of Annette Hanshaw, a torch singer of the 1920s and 30s, warble a love song. The record skips at the lyric “a woman like me,” forcing the bodhisattva to hit the Victrola. The scene explodes into a riot of music and dance as the opening credits role.

The Ramayana is a story all Indians learn in childhood; it is three grown-up Indians, represented by shadow puppets, who serve as our guides through the basics of the story and whose faulty memories and modern sensibilities give Paley ample opportunity for some great comedy. For example, the commentators try to decide how long ago the story takes place, starting at the 13th century. Paley provides appropriate garb for that century. “No, no, it was much longer ago than that.” The setting changes. Finally, one commentator chimes in “BC.” A title card places the story at “A long time ago BC.” One of my favorite moments comes when they wonder whether Sita deserved her fate. After all, she could have gone back to Rama with Hanuman and kept hundreds of warriors from being slaughtered. “And monkeys!” one says. “Yes,” another comments, “what about animal rights?”


The animation style varies. When the elements of the story are simply being recounted by the commentators, the characters are stylized watercolors or stiff, cut-out images from magazines and books. Whenever Paley wishes to tell the story musically, all of the characters look like cartoons, with Sita portrayed as a kind of hinged-doll Betty Boop and the rest resembling Dudley Do-right. Annette Hanshaw provides Sita’s singing voice, trilling out such famous tunes of the time as “Am I Blue,” with Sita colored an appropriately dark blue. The film takes on a 1930s musical film quality at these junctures.

Paley intersperses the story of Sita with her parallel break-up story, beginning in San Francisco where she lives happily with Dave and their cat Lexi, going through to his temporary assignment in India and her joining him, to her flying to New York City for a conference and getting an e-mail from him saying “Don’t come back. Love, Dave.” After a suitable period of desperate longing and humiliation, Nina gets her act together, adopts another cat, and starts reading the Ramayana, revealing the origins of her idea to create Sita Sings the Blues. These scenes shorthand Nina and Dave’s emotions very effectively, and her depictions of her cats couldn’t be more dead-on and funny if she had videotaped them and inserted them in the film. Interestingly, I was worried about what happened to Lexi. Others must have been, too, because Paley adds a title card at the end assuring us that Lexi is being spoiled rotten by her new humans in San Francisco.

The film also includes a 2:30 minute intermission, during which the characters move around and get food from the concessions and audience sounds are heard. Since the film is only 82 minutes long, this was a huge joke on the butt deadeners movie fans increasingly have to endure. The curtains open after intermission to a fabulous dance choreographed to terrific Indian music that features Waking Life-style animation and quick cuts of Sita that get the audience back in the mood.

You can see exactly how all of this plays out in the trailer below:

Sita Sings the Blues is a wonderfully entertaining film packed with more great moments than I can possibly describe, with delightful animation and, if you’re a fan of torch and blues music of the 1920s and/or Annette Hanshaw, a great soundtrack. The Ramayana is supposed to teach about submitting to one’s fate, and despite the modern spin on the story, Nina learns to do just that. l

3rd 04 - 2007 | no comment »

After the Wedding (2006)

Director: Susanne Bier

2007 European Union Film Festival


By Kathryn Ware

I love a movie that takes my expectations, shakes them around for a couple of hours, and ushers me out of the theater thoroughly and pleasantly surprised. A film that blazes a new trail, as opposed to following a well-trod path, is all too rare and cause for celebration in my book.

After the Wedding is just such a film. Director Susanne Bier (who co-wrote the film with Anders Thomas Jensen) has crafted a tightly wound drama that twists and turns without ever feeling contrived, and earned the Danish film a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination this past year.
The story centers on Jacob, a Danish ex-pat working at an Indian orphanage on the verge of shutting its doors. The children’s last hope lies with Jorgen, a Danish businessman who offers millions, but on one condition: that Jacob himself come to Copenhagen and shake hands on the deal. Why has Jorgen made such a personal request? And why is Jacob so reluctant to return to Copenhagen? These are just the first of many small mysteries that fuel the narrative.

Jacob arrives in Denmark where he’s set up in a posh hotel penthouse suite, a fish out of water among all the modern conveniences so foreign to his impoverished life in India. Awkward in a new suit and clutching a video tape of the children he hopes to save, he’s ill at ease during his first meeting with Jorgen, a confident man of wealth and power used to calling the shots, both professionally and personally. Jacob is lean, ruggedly handsome, and serious. We rarely see him smile. Jorgen is a large, gregarious man in the style of all successful businessmen who eat, drink, and socialize well. He talks more than he listens and rattles Jacob with his apparent lack of interest in Jacob’s earnest presentation. What, exactly, is his game?
When Jorgen makes the strange and seemingly innocuous request that Jacob attend his daughter’s wedding, the game, so to speak, is afoot.


Arriving late to the ceremony, Jacob recognizes someone from his past and then a secret revealed at the reception pulls the rug out from under him, casting his trip in an entirely different light. What follows is a compelling personal drama that eludes expectation. As one revelation dominoes into another, Jacob is led to a moral decision with ramifications felt halfway around the world.

It’s no disappointment to the audience that the “big reveal” comes early on in the story; there’s so much more to follow, holding our attention as we watch these characters grapple with each new development. The camera that frequently lingers on extreme close-ups of characters’ faces—especially the eyes—combined with a somber soundtrack, creates an air of uncertainty. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when it did, I was deeply moved.

Mad Mikkelsen (the bad guy poker player in Casino Royale) admirably carries the film on Jacob’s shoulders. Rolf Lassgard (as Jorgen) is wonderful in a role that easily could have had him chewing scenery at every turn. Sidse Babett Knudsen (as Jorgen’s wife Helene) and Stine Fischer Christensen (as his newlywed daughter) round out the fine ensemble. The strength and honesty of this acting quartet keeps the film from sinking in melodramatic waters. l


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