Film's theme of death, abandonment at age 70 strikes emotional chord
CHAMPAIGN — The last essay Roger Ebert wrote for his "Great Movies" book series was about the 1958 Japanese film, "The Ballad of Narayama."
The stylized movie, directed by Keisuke Kinoshita, a contemporary of Akira Kurosawa, is about a supposed tradition in which villagers carry their 70-year-olds to the Narayama mountain to die of exposure, leaving one less mouth to feed in a time of starvation.
Three weeks before Ebert died, on April 4, he added "The Ballad of Narayama" to the 2013 Roger Ebert's Film Festival. It was the last movie to be put on the Ebertfest schedule.
The final line in the movie, shown Friday afternoon at the Virginia Theatre, is emotionally charged, considering Ebert was 70 when he died.
It is spoken by Tama, whose husband has just returned after having reluctantly carried his resigned 70-year-old mother, Orin, to the Narayama mountain top to die of exposure:
"When we reach the age of 70, we, too, shall go to the mountain," Tama says.
As the credits rolled, a visibly upset Chaz Ebert, sitting in the back of the theater, was talking intently with actress Tilda Swinton.
Swinton, who is here with the movie "Julia," in which she stars in the title role, had entered the theater shortly before a digitally restored version of "The Ballad of Narayama" was shown. "Julia" was the last movie shown Thursday in the five-day festival, which will close Sunday.
Film scholar and frequent Ebertfest guest David Bordwell introduced "The Ballad of Narayama," saying it is based on Japanese folkloric legend about old persons being left to die, in what is sometimes vulgarly called "dumping Grandma."
"There is a lot of debate as to whether the tradition existed in Japan," Bordwell said. "Nevertheless, there is a folk legend about it."
There also are in Japan a famous play and an extended short story published in 1956 about the legend, Bordwell said.
He described "Narayama" as halfway between kabuki and film.
Ebert in his review wrote that the harsh imagery of the movie set contrasts with the way the film is structured around song and dance.
"Although presented in the kabuki style, it isn't based on an actual kabuki play but on a novel," the late film critic wrote. "Kinoshita is correct, I believe, in presenting his story in this stylized way; his form allows it to become more fable than narrative, and thus more bearable."
Opening the festival earlier Friday was "Oslo, August 31st," with writer and director Joachim Trier of Oslo, Norway, there in person.
On stage afterward with Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips, Trier said he had grown up in Oslo skateboarding, when it was outlawed by the Norwegian government because it was considered too dangerous for children.
As part of that rebellious subculture, he got to know a lot of other kids whom he had "wanted to bring along in life." Some did well later, and some did not.
Trier was thinking of them as he co-wrote the "Oslo, August 31st" screenplay, basing it on the novel "The Fire Within" by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, a French nationalist who wrote between the two world wars.
French director Louis Malle also made a movie based on the novel. Released in 1963, that film also was titled "The Fire Within."
In Trier's film, Anders Danielson Lie, in real-life a medical doctor, musician, writer and actor, stars as Anders, a heroin addict who has been in rehab and clean for 10 months.
The movie follows the depressed and suicidal Anders after he leaves his rehab center to go to a job interview and to catch up with old friends in Oslo. The character is lonely and fails to connect with people. Yet he is intelligent and talented, with a supportive family. He can't deal with his life, which he feels is a failure.
"Everybody wants to do well, but we're not always able to," Trier said.
The director said he set the story to take place on Aug. 31. "The 31st of August symbolizes the end of summer, when autumn comes. There's something intense and melancholy about it."
He also shot in 35mm, rather than digital, saying film reveals "secrets in the blacks, in the dark areas" of the images. Saying he doesn't want to appear snobbish, Trier, a third-generation filmmaker, said he grew up with 35mm film.
"It's like a language. No one has said digital looks so much better."
"Oslo, August 31st," released in 2011, is Trier's second feature. Phillips said Ebert "didn't really love" Trier's first, "Reprise" (2006) but that Ebert as well as Phillips were "crazy" about "Oslo."