With Clara Sola, Jana Gana Mana and My Donkey My Lover & I, Subhash Jha explains why the protagonists resort to strong decisions for justice and equality.
I had no idea Costa Rica had a film industry. Or maybe they did, we just don’t know. Clara Sola Costa Rica’s 2021 Oscar entry is a fabulous introduction to a part of the world where mystique and mojo, purity and childishness go hand in hand.
There’s something very unsettling about the stillness that shrouds the film’s middle-aged heroine, Clara, played by Wendy Chinchilla Araya.
Wendy, I got to know her, is a recognized dancer. It explains why and shows that she plays this graceless character with such grace. There’s an irresistible quality to Clara’s clumsiness. She moves around like a puppet, she communicates with animals and insects by their first names, especially a white horse from her mother’s farm named Yuca who is almost like Clara’s kindred spirit.
She drags herself uncomfortable in human contact and blossoms under the gaze of the sky. She is a nocturnal creature that prowls around, howls and protests when human beings try to make her do the things she hates, like playing the spiritual healer of her village, remaining anointed as the emissary of the Virgin Mary, which means Clara’s sexual appetite needs to be curbed, even if it means her mother has to dip her finger in hot red peppers.
It’s a chilling portrait of isolation and nostalgia made lyrical by Sophie Winqvist Loggins’ cinematography which remarkably captures the sights and smells of the forest. As Clara wanders the desert. Nature is a mute witness to its restlessness, never intimidating.
In how actress Wendy Chinchilla Araya connects with nature, I remembered Shabana Azmi in Aparna Sen’s Sati. There is a creepy primitive look in Clara’s eyes. It’s the look of a woman on the verge of disintegration, when suddenly a handsome farmhand arrives.
Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón) is exceptionally empathetic, a man any woman would want for her. Clara, and wears her slippers as she hobbles forward. When she offers herself to him on a platter, Santiago firmly but kindly refuses. She’s not a woman made to tumble in the hay.
So what is Clara for? A fall in the hay, a sexual experience before it’s too late seems high on her wish list.
It is the story of a primitive woman who is told that she is not meant for basic earthly pleasures. But she wants exactly those. She wants a pretty blues dress and a dance with a man, just like her pretty cousin Maria. The pulls and pressures of a life torn between the spiritual and the carnal are extraordinary in this sweet, evocative ode to DH Lawrence’s Lady’s Chatterly’s Lover and Stephen King’s Carrie.
Clara Sola is deeply layered and its core is not easy to reach. On the surface, it’s a quiet, restrained, laid-back drama about a Cinderella who Prince Charming thinks is destined for a higher life. Hell, Clara could use some serious sex right here right now, right under the big blue sky.
Clara has a secret name for everyone and for everything. I have one for this film: a pearl.
Sometimes the screen hero has to do what he has to do, regardless of the repercussions. When all else fails. A society on the verge of collapse needs a wake-up call. Dijo Jose Antony’s Jana Gana Mana (in Malayalam) is that bad wake-up call that cinema was invented to provide, but rarely does. Writer Sharis Mohammed dares to address the “othering” of Muslims by fringe sections of the right.
But halfway through the film, he changes his mind and wields his guns on the very suppressed community he wants to speak up for. It begins with a Muslim academician Saba Mariam (played rather lavishly by Mamta Mohandas) being brutally murdered and burned to death. Politician at condolence meeting on tense college campus speaks of victim as ‘one of them’, etc.
Wait, this is getting serious. A cop Sajjan Kumar (played by the brilliant Suraj Venjaramoodu) is brought in to deal with the volatile situation. He decides to fight for justice for the militant professor killed in a college that looks like JNU from afar.
So far, so strong, I thought. But then the plot takes a U-turn and a bit clunky at that. Suddenly, it’s no longer the hard-hitting political statement it was meant to be. The storyline now turns into a full screaming game, a kind of eclectic and hectic impromptu thriller with characters shedding their masks as if the pandemic has just decided to retire.
Rarely have I seen a polarized plot. Both halves display split personalities, with the second half systematically but not effectively demolishing all the Islamophobic arguments of the pre-gap part by turning the murder of the pretty teacher into a vendetta story.
As Prithviraj moves elegantly with a chic limp through the puddle of the plot, the narrative sighs, moans, and flips into full commercial mode, making the earlier half, much more controlled, suck and no av.
So what do we do with this schizophrenic film? It generates an atrocious tension, first, it tells us that Islamophobia exists and then it tells us to relax, it’s a political game. No, not even that. A nasty politician, the Home Secretary (played by GM Sundar) who is for this millennium what Sadashiv Amrapurkar was in Govind Nihalani Ardh Satya over the last millennium. Get rid of crummy politicians and all will be well in the world.
Prithviraj’s motives for exposing the politician in the account room are confused by a random quick edit. Perhaps the creators plan to give us a more cohesive account of what really happened to this visibly injured character in Part 2.
Yes there is a Jana Gana Mana sequel which, despite all the flaws of a fractured narrative in the first part, I really look forward to. Jana Gana Mana is more admirable for what it tries to say than for what it ultimately puts on screen.
There are some embarrassing performances in a movie that should have been more quality conscious. But Suraj Venjaramoodu in the first half and Prithviraj in the second are in fine form. They remind us of the virtues of a patriarchal cinema; even in a movie that speaks out against injustice against women, it’s the men who do the heavy lifting.
In the eccentric title of Caroline Vignal My donkey my lover and me, Antoinette Lapouge is the kind of awkward and tactless heroine that the French like to put in uncomfortable situations. She is prone to fits of mortifying impulsiveness. And in the curiously titled My donkey, my lover and me– no, they don’t call the lover a donkey, there’s actually a donkey playing one of the main characters – when we first meet Antoinette, she’s making out with Dad’s father one of his kindergarten students in the classroom. If you think that’s as inappropriate as his conduct is going to be, you’re wrong. It’s getting worse. Her lover Vladimir (Benjamin Lavernhe) is a very married man with a wife and a daughter whom he takes on vacation to a picturesque seaside resort known for its donkey rides. In desperate face-to-face action, Antoinette follows her lover on a family vacation. What follows could have been very predictable and exciting. That’s exciting. Once at the resort, Antoinette kisses her lover under the noses of her family. She is disgusting in her carnal urgency, pathetic in her futile efforts to win him back, and embarrassing in her intrusions into her lover’s family vacation.
Miraculously, the film allows Antoinette’s clouded judgment to remain intact through alien intervention. It’s like she’s master of her own destiny, twisted as it is. In the ardent pursuit of her two-stroke lover, the plot is often subject to episodes of soulful introspection, illuminating Antoinette’s trekking time with tons of talk time with her stubborn ass. My donkey my lover and me delivers what is expected, albeit unexpectedly. It is sharp and smooth simultaneously. While Antoinette thinks (pretends?) no one can see her adulterous moves, she’s also a very self-aware evolved human being who knows what a mess she’s gotten herself into. In the end, his friendship with his traveling companion donkey seems not only predestined but also moving. Laure Calamy (already starring in Call Me Your Agent) brings a rare empathy to her character. As clumsy as they are, Antoinette never seems unworthy. She may find herself in a situation that most educators wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. But Antoinette knows how to make lemonade when life gives her lemons. Her confrontations with her lover’s practical and sensitive wife (Olivia Côté) make Antoinette look bewildered. But her mistakes are hers. She never denies them. Even in her worst moments, Antoinette is self-aware. Having a donkey for company doesn’t have to be an exercise in stupidity. What if the donkey was much smarter and more sensible than the human it must carry?
These are the questions that weave in and out of this quintessentially French film that tells us screen heroes can be as stubborn as they come. That’s what makes them heroes sometimes.
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has written about Bollywood long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.
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