Isle of Flowers (1989)

isle-of-flowersBrazil
4.5*

Director:
Jorge Furtado
Screenwriter:
Jorge Furtado
Directors of Photography:
Roberto Henkin, Sergio Amon

Running time: 13 minutes

Original title: Ilha das flores

This short film appears to be a documentary, but it doesn’t really matter whether the characters are real individuals or not. The very loose storyline follows the journey of a tomato and examines the implications of human intervention while trying to capture exactly what it is that makes us human. The conclusions are rather pessimistic.

Isle of Flowers is set, if such a simple term may be used here, at a tomato plantation in Porto Alegre, where a worker named Suzuki (the recurring, matter-of-fact narrator informs us that he is Japanese) picks the vegetables. These tomatoes will be sold to a supermarket, where Mrs Anete, a perfume saleswoman, will buy them. When she prepares the tomato soup, she deems one of the tomatoes unsuitable and throws it in the garbage. One of Porto Alegre’s garbage dumps is situated on an island called the Isle of Flowers, where pigs and humans vie for a chance to retrieve items from the garbage in order to feed themselves.

The film’s importance lies not in its ability to trace the very banal journey of a tomato from the plantation to the garbage dump, but in its evocative presentation of human desperation at the heart of consumerism. Isle of Flowers uses the red vegetable as a red herring: The film, via many detours, finally deals with the poor of Porto Alegre who have to scavenge for food; they find themselves, in the scheme of things, situated even lower on the socioeconomic ladder than pigs. Everything has a price and can be exchanged for money, as the film clearly indicates, and since a pig can be bought for food, it is worth more than the poor scavengers, who cannot.

The Isle of Flowers, moving as it does from one train of thought to the next, is comical in its apparent digressions but ruthless in its depiction of the lives of human beings. When mentioning Jews, all we see are images of the Holocaust. A human being is defined, for example, as an entity with a highly developed brain and opposable thumbs. These traits are accompanied onscreen by an image of a mushroom cloud (a consequence of the workings of the brain) and the forbidden apple, picked by the opposable thumbs.

My only qualm with the film is its definition of the family as a unit that consists of a father, a mother and two children. While traditionally true, this convention is purely arbitrary and wholly simplistic. But this flaw does nothing to detract from the film’s enlightening and thoroughly entertaining perspective on the impact of exchange.

El Norte (1983)

USA/UK
4.5*

Director: 
Gregory Nava
Screenwriters: 
Gregory Nava
Anna Thomas
Director of Photography: 
James Glennon

Running time: 139 minutes

At the house of a Guatemalan plantation owner, a dirt-poor worker betrays his friends for a wad of bills. These friends, meeting up at an abandoned hacienda, an old manor on the plantation that has all but crumbled to the ground, are taken out by a special force of men with machine guns. One of these men who are killed is Arturo Xuncax, but before he leaves for his last meeting, he has a very meaningful conversation with his son, Enrique – a conversation that makes it impossible not to empathise with him and the other plantation workers. Arturo says to Enrique:

It’s the same everywhere. For the rich, the peasant is just a pair of arms. That’s all they think we are, arms for work. They treat their animals better than they do us. For many years, we’ve been trying to make the rich understand that poor people have hearts and souls… that they feel. We are human, all of us.

Shortly after this scene, Enrique and his sister Rosa leave their small town of San Pedro, go across the border the border into Mexico and head north (El Norte means “The North” and refers to their end destination: the United States of America). Of course, the journey isn’t going to be easy, especially for these two youngsters who have almost impossible fantasies of the country up north. In a very well-chosen sequence in which the chaos of Mexico is juxtaposed with the green lawns, the sprinklers and the cars of suburban USA.

The film proceeds much faster than expected, which allows every scene to count. The editing is quick at times, although the director makes the very interesting decision to shoot many scenes in which a character delivers many lines of dialogue in a single take. This shows the director has a mind for connecting images into a comprehensible whole that enables the audience to grasp the physical nature of the story, while slowing down the action on a human level to make us understand their words and their feelings.

Interestingly enough, the part of the film that evokes the most danger is the second half, which takes place in the USA. There is tension built into the premise that the main characters are working illegally, and while Immigration Services haven’t been successful in discovering them, the mere presence of these government officials, in very quick scenes that remind us of their function in society, plays on our fear that Enrique and Rosa will somehow be found out or reported.

No, the USA is not as easy as the brother and sister from Guatemala had expected; one scene that is clear in this regard takes places during Rosa’s first day cleaning a big house. The lady is nice, but when she explains how the functions of the washing machine should be used, she completely disregards the fact that she is speaking to someone for whom electricity is a foreign concept and whose English is less than rudimentary.

What is remarkable about the film is that it doesn’t paint its characters as victims of an unjust American context but shows how difficult life can be for a foreigner even when most things seem to be going smoothly. There are cultural, linguistic and historical chasms to overcome, and if these are not bridged before a green card is in the mail, there could be serious consequences.

The film is staged with amazing clarity, and while the situation is simple, and some of the events are predictable, the execution of the story delivers a very engaging experience. The only point at which the film falters is during the border crossing from Mexico to the USA. After what the characters have been told, we expect a sewer scene such as the famous one from The Shawshank Redemption. What we get, in comparison, is almost light enough to be laughable, and that is why the difficulties that they do face on this journey cannot be taken very seriously; and yet, their reaction is to be frightened to the point of being paralysed. This scene, stretched beyond its limits, is the only bad chord in an otherwise brilliant piece of work.

El Norte is an excellent film, its journey aspect similar to the one in Michael Winterbottom’s In This World; both films demonstrate the difficulty of international movement, especially when you look or speak in a certain way. As director Gregory Nava’s debut film, which he co-wrote with producer Anna Thomas, the film is consistently entertaining with wonderful characters who want to realise their fantasies. Though it was made 30 years ago, its central assessment of the life of a foreigner from south of the border still seems entirely credible and heartbreaking, and it should serve as a wake-up call to all those anti-immigrant rabblerousers.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Japan/USA
4.5*

Director:
Paul Schrader
Screenwriters: 
Paul Schrader
Leonard Schrader
Chieko Schrader
Director of Photography: 
John Bailey

Running time: 115 minutes

An extraordinary film about an artist’s desire for political change brought about by his art. The multidimensional way in which the tale presented to us is vibrant but by no means attempts to give a complete picture of the man.

The story is played out in three distinct parts that are woven together throughout the film: present (1970), in colour; past (pre-1970) in black and white; imaginary, in very bright colours. Of course, it is no coincidence that the present and the imaginary are both shown in colour, and by the time the film reaches its climax, the pure expression of Mishima’s ideal that art and action somehow be fused is visualised magnificently onscreen, accompanied by the music of Philip Glass, without whom this film would not have had the same energy.

The film is based on the real-life individual, Yukio Mishima, a writer, director, actor and admirer of the samurai traditions. The content of his own novels forms the backdrops for the episodes in the film. These episodes – the four chapters of the film’s title – are labelled as “Beauty”, “Art”, “Action” and “Harmony of Pen and Sword”.

The different novels on which the film draws, and whose visual representations in the film are nothing short of breathtaking, are The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses. Naturally, the omission of such a novel in the final part of the film implies that the episode itself, directed by Mishima, is another kind of novel, although he seems to achieve in real life what had eluded him in his fiction: the fusion of words and action.

Director Paul Schrader’s treatment of Mishima’s sexuality does not aim for sensationalism; on the contrary, it provides one of many points of coherence between the different story lines, and the story lines do sometimes overlap, in the manner of the opening credits sequence of Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (whose soundtrack was also composed by Philip Glass).

While director Paul Schrader took great pains to portray this Japanese story with Japanese actors, performing in Japanese, he opted for an English voice-over because he felt the amount of subtitles would otherwise be unbearable for the viewer. Perhaps this is true, but his solution to the problem – an American voice-over whose speaker pretends to be Mishima – damages the film’s otherwise impeccable handling of the material.

The music, as much a contributing factor as Schrader’s direction, enthuses the viewer even when the thread of the present – and its inevitable conclusion (seppuku, or harakiri: suicide by disembowelment) – might have provoked a very different reaction. And in those closing moments, when the different stories finally culminate, the viewer will recognise that Schrader has a masterful grip on the material and that the transcendent power his main character speaks of during the film is powerfully evoked.