‘Who am I?’ and ‘The Unfinished Letter’ at CIFF

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In his second feature film, “Who am I?”, American-educated Russian director Klim Shipenko delivers an ideal cinematic experience: gripping, twisted plot line; sincere, powerful performances; aesthetically appealing cinematography; and a subtle exploration of powerful philosophical questions.

The plot of the film — which’s screening as part of Cairo International Film Festival’s International Competition — is based on a true story of a young man (Aleksandr Yatsenko) who is apparently suffering from dissociative amnesia — a complete loss of memory about his own identity.

Pasha is picked up at a bus terminal in the Crimean city of Sevastopol and the local criminal investigator (Anatoliy Beliy) calls in a psychiatrist (veteran actor Sergey Gazarov) to help him solve the case. The cast also includes Viktoria Tolstoganova in the role of a provincial journalist and the investigator’s former romantic interest as well as pop singer/actress Zhanna Firske.

This is a highly unusual appearance by Friske whose acting is typically flat and one-dimensional in roles of banal sex symbols. Yet here, she delivers a heart-felt performance as an actress who has lost herself along the way and knows that ultimately she is nothing special. Perhaps Friske simply was not acting. Whatever the case may be, this is probably the first and last time an audience will have the pleasure of witnessing a glimmer of real talent on her part.

Shipenko successfully builds the characters into real human beings in a short period of time. The audience can identify with all of them. Enough of their personal background is given and reinforced by the believable performances that no clear good or bad guys emerge — this is a film of six protagonists.

The director manages to build up this diverse character base as well as present an engaging story with a surprise ending. The end of the film leaves us with one last mysterious scene. Upon leaving the theater we can indulge in that pleasant experience of going over all of it again in our heads to try to figure out what exactly happened.

The story has a double construction. One is bare, cold, and fact-driven based around the interrogations of the young man in the present. The other is of his encounter with the actress in a series of lush, poetic flashbacks. Through both story arcs some moving questions are discussed and answers proposed. These are significant in themselves because they showcase Russian cultural stoicism, providing a unique perspective on perennial human anxieties: How to deal with the loss of a child? What to do when one feels completely disconnected from one’s life? When is it too late to return to an old romance?

Compared to Shipenko’s masterful delivery of a Hitchcockian, dramatic detective story, Aparna Sen’s “The Unfinished Letter” — another International Competition entry — frankly looks ham-handed and juvenile.

This is a film that also centers on a disenchanted and desperate actress on the verge of suicide. Sen stars as the aging Mrinalini and her daughter, Konkona Sen Sharma, plays the younger version of the actress in flashback sequences.

Though this is not your typical Bollywood film and indeed constitutes a considerable step up in production values and acting technique, the film remains a weak attempt at dramatically addressing some of life’s central dramas: loves lost and found and the incontrovertible passage of time.

Sen has been directing since 1981 and five of her past seven films have won national awards in India. This is her third film in Bengali. Her films represent the art cinema tradition also known as Parallel Cinema, which began among Bengali visionaries like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen in the 1950s.

But Parallel Cinema has seen a decline since the 1990s, forced to compete against ever-expanding Bollywood influence in the industry, as well as television productions and pirating all of which undercut funding and resources. Some say the genre has recently been experiencing a resurgence with more artful productions coming out of Bollywood as well as moderate success of independent companies.

Regardless of the state of Indian art film in general, Iti Mrinalini remains a poor testament to the continuation of Ray’s tradition. To be fair, Sen’s own portrayal of Mrinalini was fairly convincing. She seemed to emote quite naturally and there is a palpable sense of fatigue and indecision as she tries repeatedly to write her letter of farewell. The problem is that we can’t quite figure out why she has come to this decision. The suicidal narrative seems just an excuse to create a story in flashbacks which reveal the passage of time without having to account for chronological discrepancies.

The central tension is between Mrinalini’s experience of a long chain of unfortunate tragedies and her attempt to cope with not being able to control any of them. This is further complicated by what Koushik Sen’s character (no relation to the director and her daughter) identifies as an inability accept that love can exist in different forms.

We are left to assume that the lesson is “do not expect people to love you on your terms, only on theirs.” This remains just a potential interpretation however, for the film is full of various romantic, platonic and familial relationships which present a multiplicity of interpretations of the ideas of love.

There are two key factors which make the story uninteresting and unbelievable: On one hand it is the excruciating extent to which everything is narrated by the characters.

On the other it is the unpleasant sensation of seeing people act — a sure sign of bad acting.

All of the dramas, events, and conflicts are explained by dialogue and commentary from the characters themselves, leaving no room for the audience to watch them live out these difficulties on the screen. These people seem only slightly more real than soap opera stars and because this is not Bollywood, we are not even offered the option of obvious comedic character distortion as we watch Mrinalini’s drama unfold.

Ultimately the film amounts to over two hours of weepy discourse about how life can be difficult and uncontrollable, interspersed with some admittedly beautiful shots of waterfront sunsets and beautiful bright colors so typical of cinematic depictions of the Indian subcontinent. The ending is unexpected and poignant though also too little too late to remedy Sen’s failure to make this story unforgettable.



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