Great Expectations (1946)

Country: United Kingdom

Books written by Charles Dickens have been translated into the medium of film for years and years. From Oliver Twist to A Christmas Carol, his stories have been made into musicals as well as animated films. Perhaps one of the most famous renditions of Charles Dickens’ immortal story Great Expectations is the 1946 film made by David Lean.

Lean is considered to be one of the most influential filmmakers in the world, and is revered by many famous directors. At the time Great Expectations was made, Lean was just starting to get noticed. He would then go on to make iconic films such as Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Passage to India, which immortalised him as the man with an epic vision. In fact Steven Spielberg had once said that he wanted to be a director after watching Lawrence of Arabia.

Lean’s impact in the world of cinema is therefore undeniable, and any fan of old films, or films based on books, or even David Lean, should never commit the sacrilege of not watching Great Expectations.

Pip, (played by Anthony Wager as a child and John Mills as an adult), is a poor orphan who is threatened by an escaped convict to give him food. Pip steals some and hands it over to the convict. Also during his childhood, an old rich woman, Miss Havisham (who was abandoned on her marriage day), calls Pip to spend time with her, paying her for his company. There he meets a cruel but absolutely beautiful teenager, Estella, with whom he later falls in love.

Many years later, Pip discovers that he has been taken under the wing of a secret benefactor, whose identity he is unsure of. As a result, Pip moves into the city and lives with Herbert Pocket (played by Alec Guinness) and rubs shoulders with high class people. Who exactly is this secret benefactor? Pip thinks it is Miss Havisham, but is he right?

John Mills is brilliant in his role here and though he was around 40 at the time the film was made, he makes the perfect Pip. Jean Simmons is another treat to watch, as the spoiled young Estella.  Not only does she look uncannily like Vivien Leigh, but also to an extent, acts like her in Gone with the Wind. Valerie Hobson plays the older Estella to perfection as well. There will probably be no Miss Havisham as iconic as the one played by Martita Hunt.

The film is an absolute visual treat. Though it is in black and white, its start contrasts and haunting images make for a completely different experience. One only has to see the scene where Pip finds Miss Havisham sitting in her bridal dress in front of a rotting wedding cake just to believe it.

The film is absolutely haunting, and its images will play in your mind after you finish watching it. Surely this has to be the best adaptation of Great Expectations ever.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you are a fan of David Lean. Also watch it if you want to see a great rendition of Dickens’ classic tale. For Alec Guinness fans, here is a sneak preview of him as a young man, before he went on to play Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai, Prince Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia and Obi Wan Kenobi in the old Star Wars trilogy.

Avoid it if you cannot bear black and white movies. Any other reason to avoid it? Definitely not.

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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.

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).

The Colour of Pomegranates – Sayat-Nova (1968)

Country: Armenia (at that time the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic)

There are some films that choose not to tell stories, but choose instead to show slices of art. The Colour of Pomegranates, directed by the acclaimed Armenian director Sergei Parajanov, is exactly that kind of film. If you’re looking for a plot line, you’ve chosen the wrong film. But if you go with an open mind to enjoy art for its own sake, The Colour of Pomegranates is one movie you should not miss.

You will perhaps never see such stunning and sometimes surreal visuals on screen. And though the film is dated now, the composition of frames, the use of colour, and the stark imagery is still unforgettable.

The film is based on the poems of a famous Armenian bard – Sayat Nova. Though the film is not a biography of the poet’s life (as it clearly mentions in the opening credits), it goes through his life using the imagery in his poems.

For non-Armenians, this film is sure to be confusing. It may also be confusing for Armenians. The best way to go about watching this film is knowing that the film is about the life of the poet and it does not attempt to be biographical. Instead it is made to resemble Armenian illuminated miniatures and the imagery is supposed to make the most impact.

This is not a high budget film and it is shot primarily in Armenian monasteries. The colours are stark and symbolic, and the music by Tigran Mansuryan is definitely surreal and haunting.

If you’re looking for something experimental, The Colour of Pomegranates is the right film to pick. It may not leave you with the satisfaction of having watched a film with a coherent plot line, but its visuals will stay in your mind long after you have watched the film.

Ever heard of the term ‘visual poetry’? This is it.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you like experimental cinema or want to watch l’art pour l’art.

Avoid it if you get bored easily. Also avoid it if you do not like to watch films without a storyline.