How will an audience new to both the foreign art film and the full-length musical react to a film that's both? Here's where we attempt to find out
How do you recommend a foreign film? (For the sake of this discussion, let's restrict our purview to the foreign art film. About the other kind, the mainstream foreign films, we have little knowledge, as they're not as widely talked about outside the countries they're made in. Also it's mostly the art films I get asked about)
Do you go with the usual suspects, the indisputable gods of the pantheon, the Bergmans, the Godards, the Truffauts, the Fellinis, the Antonionis… to show how the foreign art film, as we know it today, came to be? Or, do we opt for the Almodóvars and the Kieslowskis, who stood on the shoulders of those earlier giants and made movies at least a little more in tune with today's times, in terms of themes and techniques?
The point, of course, is to recommend something that will not put someone off foreign art cinema forever — but that's easier said than done. It's tough enough knowing if a regular film playing at a nearby multiplex is going to be experienced with the same amount of enjoyment (or odium) by the next person. How do you figure out tastes when it comes to films so individual, so stylised, so unconcerned with the desire to please?
These thoughts arrive from a request, recently, from the person in charge of scheduling a foreign film at the cultural festival of a prestigious institution. The idea, I think, was to expose students to a different kind of cinema, and I was asked to stay back after the screening so that I could “explain” the film (to the extent that something such as this can be explained) and also answer questions.
We went back and forth between films, and I said I didn't want to screen “The 400 Blows” or “Jules and Jim” or “Breathless” — all quite easily accessible. I thought it would be interesting to screen a musical instead, Jacques Demy's “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, which is not just a film with songs but a film in song. Every single line is sung. (The score is by Michel Legrand and it's simply fantastic, a set of themes swirling back and forth, in plain and ornamented versions, underlining characters and the situations they are locked in)
The question arose whether students, youngsters, would have the patience to sit through something such as this, and I reasoned that, to the eye weaned on commercial cinema, every single foreign art film is odd in its own way, and this is just a different kind of odd. We're confused (at least somewhat) the first time we see, for instance, Godard's anti-narrative cinema — at least, here, there's a clear storyline, very close to the hearts of Indian audiences, with a boy and a girl in love being separated when he leaves to serve in the Army.
Strip away the conceit of the film being a wall-to-wall musical, and you have yourself a traditional Indian melodrama — all that loving, all that pining, all those crossed connections (with a disapproving mother figure, and with a second mother figure on her deathbed, and with another woman and another man waiting in the wings for our hero and heroine).
So how did the screening go? Actually, I'm still waiting to find out. (There was a change in schedule, and I couldn't attend the event.) But here's a reasonable guess. The first 15 minutes must have been difficult, with much twitching in the seats, but I'd think people got into the film after that and would have wanted to find out if the boy and girl (Nino Castelnuovo and a radiant Catherine Deneuve) get back together by the end, which, in my opinion, is one of the most romantic conclusions of all time, with a score that explodes into a long-awaited crescendo.
A few tears must have been silently wiped away, a few sobs muffled, a few lovelorn hearts determined to learn from lessons on-screen.
That must have been what happened, and until someone tells me otherwise (or until I'm confronted by machete-wielding students demanding their two hours back), that's the happy scenario I'm carrying inside my head.