Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Country: Japan

War is sometimes called inevitable. It is glorified as being necessary in order to eliminate certain evil, to protect one’s country, to defend its people. But what is mostly missed is the story of those caught up in a war that is not theirs.

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru No Haka) is an animated film about World War II and the lives of two orphans at a time when compassion and humanity are seemingly lost. 14-year-old Seita and 4-year-old Setsuko lose their mother during a bombing incident. Seita, who now finds responsibility hanging on his shoulders, has to take the help of his aunt, who slowly grows to resent the children during the difficult times. Unable to bear her selling his mother’s kimonos, Seita takes Setsuko along with him to an isolated bomb shelter where he thinks they can live independently.

However, food grows scarce, and though the children find temporary happiness by catching fireflies and watch them circle the bomb shelter at night, they are faced with despair in the morning, when the short-lived fireflies are all dead. These beautifully executed scenes are very symbolic in nature and help explain the futility and the death of hope in wartime.

If your exposure to animated films has been restricted to the ones made by Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks, this film can come as quite a shock. This is no fairy tale. There are no heroes or villains. Deaths are not implied, they are shown. The film is not gory, but some images may definitely be emotionally disturbing to sensitive viewers.

Isao Takahata, who established Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki, is no unknown filmmaker. Along with Miyazaki, Takahata has created a number of wonderful animated films. To those who are unacquainted with his work, this is the first film Takahata has made on such a tragic subject. Due to its emotional impact and importance in retelling Japanese history, this film is shown in schools around the country, but is accompanied with Miyazaki’s heartwarming My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari No Totoro) on DVD to lessen its depression quotient.

Considered by Roger Ebert to be ‘the greatest war film ever made’, Grave of the Fireflies does not take sides. Seita and Setsuko’s father is fighting the war on the Japanese side, and the children root for their father, who tells them that the Japanese side will win. Eventually though, the film does not take any side, apart from that of humanity.

Whether war is inevitable or glorious, or whether it is painful and futile is up for the viewer to judge. Without being didactic, Takahata’s masterpiece goes into the heart of war and uncovers the emotionally impactful story of two orphans.

The haunting score by Michio Mamiya is perfectly played with the visuals. It is sure to stay on your mind long after watching the film.

Note that the film is based on a novel by WWII survivor Akiyuki Nosaka, who wrote the semi-autobiographical story as an apology to his younger sister. You might wonder what this apology was for, but for that it is either necessary to read the book or to watch the film.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch what can be called one of the most emotionally affecting films of all time. Watch it to see how realistic animation can be and how animated characters can be more real than actors.

Avoid it if you do not want to be depressed for days. Also avoid it if you expect characters to break out into song every once in a while and if you think animated films are for children and therefore have happy endings.


Vitus (2006)

Country: Switzerland

How many times have you looked at yourself and thought ‘gosh, I wish I’d been smarter in my childhood’? Well apparently that’s not a problem for the charming child prodigy in Vitus. The namesake of the film shuffles through encyclopaedias as a toddler, and is a piano prodigy by age 5. Not only that, he has an unbelievably high IQ of 180 by age 12. Too hard to swallow that? That’s only a part of the story.

Vitus, played by real piano prodigy Teo Gheorghiu is definitely not your normal 12-year-old. He’s too smart for his classmates and also his teachers, which makes him feel less connected to those around him. His parents have envisioned a famous piano-playing life for him, but Vitus has many other plans. Under the wing of his loving grandfather, with whom he feels most comfortable, Vitus launches an invisible rebellion that is going to changes the lives of those around him.

What this ‘invisible rebellion’ is is worth looking out for.

The film has had its share of success, winning the Audience Choice Award for Best Feature at the Chicago Film Festival as well as a Best Film accolade from The Swiss Film Prize. It was also Switzerland’s entry into the Oscars that year. In spite of that, it is not a film most people outside Switzerland would have heard of. Unfortunately so, as the film has its share of special moments, as well as a brilliant soundtrack (one that consists of classical music composed by maestros such as Bach, Mozart, and many others). What makes the soundtrack even more special is that the film is about a piano prodigy and Teo Gheorghiu is one. He plays all the pieces you see him playing in the film. There’s no pretension here.

One memorable scene which uses seemingly simple (but clever) sound editing at its best is where Vitus and another boy are cycling in circles and there is the intelligent cutting of classical music over pop music and vice-versa.

Another memorable (and amusing) scene is where Vitus takes his former babysitter (who is a few years older than he is) to a Cambodian restaurant called ‘Angkor’. He reveals that he really likes her and tells her that they would be a perfect couple because women live longer than men and if he married her, they would both die around the same time.

Fredi M. Murer’s direction is commendable and the story flows in a satisfying manner. The acting is consistently good and Teo Gheorghiu, his on-screen parents Julika Jenkins and Urs Jucker, and his grandfather (on celluloid) Bruno Ganz seem like a real family.

This is a charming family film. Do not expect thrilling twists and turns with heaps and heaps of melodrama. And this isn’t a romance film either in case you’re wondering.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you want to see a film that is engaging and satisfying and really holds up well because of its lead actors. Also watch it for the plot.

Avoid it if you’re done with films about child prodigies and their families. Also avoid it if you’re not a huge fan of classical music (because there’s lots of it here).

4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days (2007)

Country: Romania

Two friends take a harrowing journey in Communist Romania in order to illegally abort a baby. Cristian Mungiu’s ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ is not a happy story at all. Its images are bleak, dark, devoid of happiness, much like the story of the two roommates.

1987, in an unknown town in Romania, two roommates, Otilia and Găbiţa secretly go about making arrangements to travel to another place for a short time. We discover that Găbiţa is pregnant and wants an abortion. However, there is one major problem – abortion is illegal in Communist Romania and getting someone to do it is even more difficult.

But Găbiţa says she has it under control, and has booked a hotel and has arranged a meeting with a certain Mr. Bebe who is supposed to carry out her abortion. However, things spiral out of control. Everything is even more distressing for Otilia, who is genuinely trying to help her roommate. When Mr. Bebe reveals certain ‘strings attached’ to the abortion plan, Otilia finds herself caught up between her sanity and compassion.

Mungiu won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for this film. The story is not a social commentary. It is not a story about mistreatment in Soviet Romania. It is a personal story of a girl.

If you’re looking for a conventional climax and denouement, this is not the right film to watch. The film is instead depressing, not visually, but emotionally. It is a real mirror into the life of people who are in a position that has changed them completely. Anamaria Marinca, who plays Otilia, perfectly brings out her character’s inner turmoil.

There is no music in this film – because music is absent in the bleakest of times.

Mungiu’s intelligent, yet sensitive understanding of women makes this a film worth a try.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you want to see a realistic, yet depressing film about life in Communist Romania. Also keep an eye out for a roughly 10-minute scene where there are no edits and the camera does not even move an inch.

Avoid it if you don’t want to be depressed. Also avoid it if suspense without action makes you disappointed.

A Moment To Remember (2004)

Country: South Korea

The lure of a touching love story is hard to resist. That is perhaps why many people turn to Korean cinema. There is something about Korean romantic films that creates a warm feeling inside, but at the same time, helps in catharsis. If there is one movie that meets these criteria perfectly, and still stands out as a memorable film in its genre, it is ‘A Moment To Remember’.

A Moment To Remember is the story of a couple from different social classes. When they fight the odds to get married, a shocking twist in fate tests their love for each other. This is the story of love’s fight in the face of adversity, and the emotional tale of enduring love.

Son Ye-jin and Jung Woo-sung play the protagonists and make a realistic ‘in-love couple’. Woo-sung’s seeming stoicism and Ye-jin’s cherubic personality clash, but this contrast is what gets this film’s point across. You can be very different in terms of social standing and personalities, but love knows no bounds.

The film, directed by Lee Jae-han, is an engaging one and will keep viewers interested in love stories engrossed. While the first third of the film takes on the form of a romantic comedy, that ‘mood’ soon dies down, and more serious matters come to the forefront.

The acting, by two of South Korea’s famous actors is noteworthy, and they are convincing in their roles. The film is structured well and flows coherently, highlighting apparently unimportant details in the beginning, which end up making sense as the story progresses.

The film does get melodramatic at points, but it does not ruin the overall experience.

A Moment To Remember is shot well and though the cinematography is not brilliant, it works for the film. The music plays out as a companion piece to the film, but is not exceptional as a standalone soundtrack.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you like to ‘indulge in’ emotional love stories every now and then. Also watch it if you’re trying to get yourself to cry.

Avoid it if you think romantic films about enduring love are just not for you. Also avoid it if you would pick action over drama any day.

Devdas (1955)

Country: India

A few love stories have made a real impact on Indian consciousness; Laila-Majnu, Heer-Ranjha, Anarkali-Salim, and Devdas. Whereas the former three are legendary and have been passed on for years, Devdas stemmed from the creative and mature mind of a young and prolific writer in 1901 (though the book was published in 1917).

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, the Bengali writer who became one of the most revered intellectuals of his time, might never have dreamed that Indian cinema would be fascinated by one particular story he wrote about doomed love. However, Devdas has been made and remade several times in many Indian languages including Hindi, Telugu and Bengali. In 2010, a Pakistani film was made on the same story.

Devdas is the story of two childhood friends – Devdas, the son of a rich landowner, and Paro (Parvati), his poorer neighbour. Devdas is sent away to boarding school in Calcutta when he grows troublesome. He returns as a man. The latent love that existed in the childhood friends awakens, and Paro’s family approaches Devdas’s family with an offer of marriage. However, they are shunned because of their low social standing and Devdas is unable to fight for his love. Disillusioned, he flees to Calcutta, leaving Paro alone to her fate.

In Calcutta, Devdas meets Chandramukhi, the courtesan with a heart of gold. He despises her for her profession, but Chandramukhi is drawn to him. Devdas wastes away his life drinking alcohol, with his childhood love forever in his mind.

The fate of these characters is very well known to Indians, but The Movie Matriarch will not reveal the rest of the plot in consideration of other non-Indian moviegoers.

The 1955 version of Devdas, directed by the renowned filmmaker Bimal Roy, is considered to be a classic in Indian (Hindi) cinema. It stays true to the spirit of the book, and features some of the best actors of their time; Dilip Kumar, Suchitra Sen and Vyajanthimala.

The authenticity of the film is one of its greatest strengths. Shot very much on location in a village area, the film completely captures the feel of rural Bengal in the early 20th Century. Whereas some later versions of Devdas resorted to using opulence and glamour as a selling point, Roy’s Devdas gains its reputation from its realistic portrayal of settings, emotions, and societal attitudes of its time.

The story of Devdas is essentially a psychological study into the mind of a character who is too weak to take any action. What makes this story different is that the female protagonists are much stronger than he is, but their strength is tested as a result of their weakness for him.

Roy perfectly captures the psychological aspects of the story and gives Dilip Kumar a chance to immortalise the character of Devdas on celluloid.

The music in the film is one of its highlights. The songs and background music were composed by S.D. Burman, who provided the film with an iconic soundtrack. Songs such as ‘Jise tu kabool karle’, ‘Mitwa laagi re ye kaisi’, ‘Ab aage teri marzi’, ‘Woh na aayenge palat kar’, are appropriately placed in the film, without being saccharine or wearisome.

The film is in black and white and that does not necessarily take anything away from its brilliance.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you are interested in a film based on a love story that India loves. Also watch it for the well fleshed out characters, realism, and emotional depth.

Avoid it if black and white movies are not your cup of tea. Also skip it if doomed love is not your kind of genre.  

Immortals (2011)

Hollywood is now officially crazy about Greek mythology and graphic novels that are inspired by Greek mythology (note Troy, 300, Clash of the Titans, Immortals), and there will be lots more ahead thanks to the ever-growing fan base of this newfound mania.

From wafer-thin exotic female seers, to muscle popping masculine heroes, these Greek mythology inspired films seem to get their bucks from the eye-candy they provide. This seems to be a consistent trait that has helped push the box office successes of these films.

‘Immortals’ is no different. Tarsem Singh’s latest mythology inspired story is about the poor son of a single mother who learns of his purpose (thanks to being favoured by the Gods) of defeating a ruthless king who wants to free the Titans using the fabled Epirus Bow.

The name of the hero is Theseus, but he has no bearing to the original Greek mythology hero of the same name. There are a few sprinkles of what can be called ‘a homage’ to original Greek mythology – but nothing more.

Our hero is a self doubting one, who does not believe in the Gods. He however learns that his destiny is to defeat an evil king and stop him from unleashing the Titans who could destroy humanity as well as the Gods.

Additionally there is a love story with the virgin Oracle, Phaedra.

This film boasts some stunning visuals, with crystal clear images of water flowing, metal shining, and blood splattering (unfortunately). The earthy hues used as the colour palette for the film, remind one of the imagery in 300. Ultimately, the film never fails at being beautiful, visually.

Anyone looking for a lot of action and violence is sure to be thrilled. There is also a lot of eye-candy for everyone. The men have six packs and the women are your typical ramp-walking models.

The acting is far from top notch and the music is nothing note-worthy and mostly escapes attention.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you really like Freida Pinto or if you like Greek mythology inspired stories and don’t mind if they deviate from the original. There’s also a lot of action and sword clanking if you enjoy that.

Avoid it if you really can’t stand Greek mythology being butchered. Also stay away if you want to see an action movie that has true emotional impact.

Svani (2007)

Country: Georgia

Not many people know that there is a country in the Caucasus named Georgia, because there is a US state with the same name that is more popular. However, for those who do know, Georgia is a country with rich culture and history, being the second country in the world to adopt Christianity as the state religion. It is also known in mythology for being the country (then called Colchis) where Jason and the Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece. Apart from that, Georgia had been a part of the USSR until its independence in 1991.

Georgia also has a very old cinema industry – one that unfortunately goes unnoticed in the wider world. However, one film that might have gained some international exposure in the recent past due to its projection during some film festivals around the world is Svani.

Svani depicts life in Georgia (not mainland Georgia mind you) but in a remote part of Georgia known as the Svaneti region. The Svaneti (which coincidentally is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is known for its ancient race of inhabitants called the Svans. Their watch towers are as old as hundreds and hundreds of years, and Svan society is generally closed from the rest of the world. What makes this group of people more enigmatic (and scary) is their practice of blood revenge.

Now at this point, this may sound like an alien culture for many uninitiated non-Georgian filmgoers. However, one of the main points of appreciating films is understanding the culture depicted in them. And if viewed with similar appreciation, this film will definitely turn out to be quite a gripping one.

Since the film is about the Svans, expect blood revenge to be a main theme. The ‘background’ of the story is encapsulated in the following words which appear after the opening credits: “When it became dark in the gorge of Mulakhi, a white angel would descend from the mountain of Tetnuldi to the Jachvliani family tower. The residents of the tower would begin praying. The angel protected them until those who lived in the tower killed a man from another tribe. Since then, the white angel has never been seen.”

Ironic that such a beautiful place becomes godforsaken because of an act of violence – and the film makes this contrast pretty clear.

Soso Jachvliani and Badri Jachvliani are the directors of this film, and Badri Jachvliani plays the protagonist who falls in love with a Russian woman and brings her to the Svaneti. But family feuds and vendetta take centre stage and form a sharp contrast, making the beauty of the Svaneti seem cruel in some ways.

There is a lot of beautiful imagery and there is a lot you can learn about Svan culture and traditions just by watching the film.

Chabuka Amiranashvili’s score is captivating, and complete perfection for the beautiful rolling hills and watch towers of Svaneti.

The film is visually spectacular, with on-location shooting done at the Svaneti acting as one of the strongest points. The film may not be one of the best ever made, but it is indeed a captivating watch and provides a non-Georgian film aficionado with a lot of information about the Svans.

This film needs to be watched with an open mind because blood revenge does not always sound like the most normal thing to do.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it to gain insight into another culture, and for the marvellous scenery. The music is also brilliant.

Avoid it if watching cultures alien to you makes you uncomfortable. Also avoid it if you are not too keen on watching something about blood revenge (because this is the main theme of the film).