Autumn (2010) dir. Aamir Bashir
Starring: Shahnawaz Bhat, Reza Naji
By Greg Klymkiw
The proper pacing of a movie can be a seemingly amorphous goal for many filmmakers. The whole problem, I think, is in the notion of whether something is too slow or not fast enough and what precisely defines and contributes to an audience detecting, then reacting to a picture when it lugubriously shuffles along. That said, and where the confusion can come in is when even a break-neck speed in terms of cuts, movement and/or line delivery contributes immeasurably to creating a dragging effect. Audiences (and I'd argue most reviewers) aren't always aware that it's a supersonic speed that, more often than not, induces boredom and/or sore asses.
I have often tarred and feathered the cinematic output of Iran (and recently added Kyrgyzstan to my ass-numbing-by-country list), but of course, it has less to do with my desire to be obnoxious than with the fact that there ARE rules to the grammar of cinema - the biggest being that a filmmaker must ALWAYS be serving the story and its forward movement, and furthermore, serving the dramatic beats in a style and manner than hammer them home the best.
Autumn is a stunning new film from India that, for the most part, is snail-paced, but in spite of this, I cannot recall a single moment when my mind wandered or when my eye strayed to my iPhone to check email. My eyes were super-glued to the screen. I couldn't take my precious asymmetrical globes off the picture if I tried. Part of this is director Aamir Bashir's desire to tell his story in a manner in which it's all important for us to experience the minute by minute, hour by hour, day in and day out emptiness in the lives of Kashmir's young men.
Living amidst violence, terrorism, poverty and a bleak future, our central character Rafiq (Shahnawaz Bhat), after an unsuccessful try at militancy following the disappearance of his brother exists in a perpetual walking cat-nap, alternately loafing with his friends and working a dead-end job (morning newspaper delivery). Life for Rafiq moves slowly and is punctuated only by bursts of violence around him. Through the course of the film, scattered gunshots are heard, bombs go off and at one point, he and his buddies find a man on the verge of dying with a gaping bullet wound to the belly (which eventually leads Rafiq to a slightly better job after they save the man).
Though haunted by his brother's disappearance, Rafiq wishes to move on. There is the overwhelming feeling of the inevitable - that his brother has been kidnapped by the security forces and/or killed and certainly, Rafiq seems to accept this, but his parents refuse to believe their eldest son is dead. This cloud of non-acceptance hangs over their home like a heavy, dark cloud. At one point, Rafiq's father Jusuf (Reza Naji) suffers a nervous breakdown - adding more strife and tragedy to a situation foreign to most of us in the West, but a matter of course in so many other parts of the world.
This is the story of a world where death, destruction and corruption are endless and by extension, while life is cheap and can end very quickly, life, while it goes on, seems to be an endless, plodding state of aimlessness and despair.
Director Bashir captures this so eloquently through a camera-eye that seldom moves and captures the day-to-day mundane activities of Rafiq - it's as if the very act of living feels like an eternity - like death itself. Shots will often hold longer than audiences might be used to, but the detail and observation within these shots is so exquisite that we experience a highly evocative portrait of a life lived merely for the sake of survival. This is NEVER boring - it is the stuff of great drama - etched with the kind of command one usually experiences in the work of such masters as Yasujiro Ozu, Satyajit Ray or Carl Dreyer, but almost never in the work of young, contemporary filmmakers. Bashir is, by trade, an actor, but I sincerely hope he continues to find subject matter that inspires him as much as that on display in Autumn so he can give up his "day job" and dazzle us again and again with his astounding command of cinematic storytelling.
This is a story that DEMANDS a measured pace. The picture is almost neorealism in extremis and there is little by way of overt lyricism - save for the few lyrical moments in the lives of the characters; most notably when Rafiq's chum sings a haunting song as the young men laze about under the autumn sky and the lads encourage him to enter a television variety show for amateurs with talent and, most importantly, when Rafiq becomes drawn to taking photographs using his late brother's camera. The pace is what PRECISELY allows for small moments like these to take on almost mythic proportions within the narrative itself.
Too many art and/or independent films almost annoyingly wear their slow pace like some badge of honour. This is why such pictures give this slower approach a bad name - their "artistry" feels machine-tooled.
Not so with Autumn. This is one of the most stately and profoundly moving films I've seen in recent years - it is replete with compassion and humanity, using its exquisite, delicate pace to examine and remind us how precious every second of life on this earth is.