From Donostia to Pasaia: the first steps – Goats & A stone wall

Whether it leads to an absurdly shaped reservoir, a rich seam of mushrooms, or vineyards blazing in yellow, hiking in the Basque Country is infinitely blissful. The most approachable site for me is Monte Ulía, a small but mysterious mountain connecting Donostia and Pasaia, which in itself offers inexhaustible excitement with its number of turnouts.

The urban side of the city ends abruptly – the dense tumult of the promenade is discontinued as a wide, rather drab road, with a petrol station emphasizing the industrial look, distinctly takes over. Then a few stair steps and the striking polish is left behind – the marble sidewalks are replaced by simple asphalt and the way up Monte Ulía begins. The cover used to be cobblestones, I imagine, remembering the sudden ascent of the street leading up to the Tomb of Gül Baba in Budapest. A mausoleum with a view, it takes a steep walk up one of the city’s tightest alleys to reach the tomb – a walk made enchanting and mythic by the unruly cobblestones that so harshly varied from everything around it. Because the tasteless visionaries of Budapest equate renovation with limitless block paving, the street, as well as the once wildly romantic tomb, almost fade into the environment – fortunately no municipal government can alter the unlikely incline. The slightly sloven aura of Monte Ulía’s borders is defined by the precipitous croft, lying parallelly to the road – it’s an anarchic animal farm, worthy of the literary connotation, given how one cannot see any signs of human maintenance. The anarchy only extends to how it looks: the fences, the bushes and the remainders of a shed are completely exposed to the ardent spirit of the inhabiting chickens, goats and horses. The political order, on the contrary, is kept well in hand by a black, one-eyed goat who rigorously warrants the oppression of his fellow animals. Although truly a commanding presence, he also personifies the inherent unsustainability of megalomania – he regularly misses out on some great pieces of cabbage given to him, being too busy to prevent others from receiving their share. Of course, the leader is often away from the fences to gather a comprehensive view of his land – that’s the occasion to observe peaceful family life.

Manifold eclectic impressions mark my overall image of the Basque Country. Sunlight, crystalline blue and white, then fog and grayish greens, impudent palm trees and severe pines, hot sand in the wind and the immobile starkness of rocks. The large-scale, distant awe of panoramas (such as the one opening up right after the goats), and the reductive beauty of various surfaces up close, with intricate, ever-changing details. Passing by the first lookout to the ocean, the opposite kind of spectacle emerges. A stone wall covered in moss and flowers, lusterless and earthy, nonetheless displays a remarkably broad spectrum of colors. Looking away from the unattainable magnitude of the ocean, one can turn to the stonewall to regard and touch something more fathomable.

photos by Anna Babos

 

 

Flashes of deception: Sacha Guitry’s Le Roman d’un tricheur

Set in the world of swindlers accidentally outsmarting death and monarchs waiting to be assassinated, surrounded by tiny, smoke-filled theatres for angelic crooks and ornate, wrought-iron elevator doors for dishonorable gentlemen, Sacha Guitry’s Le Roman d’un tricheur encapsulates a zeitgeist fascinated by the fanciful elegance of fraud. It is charming and light (although the tricheur evoked in the title, played by Guitry, commits himself to the reasonable rule of never robbing his own home) but the dominant tone is dictated by its pride in narcissism, invention and confessional self-reflection (beginning with the ostentatious opening credits and exploring the stripped-down, modernist humor of the constant opening and closing of lobby doors). The narrative intricacy and Guitry’s performative scintillation are striking in that the self-exhibition veils the film’s moving details.

A diverse emotional depth manifests itself in reductive dramatic form, vivid immediacy and gentle symbolism, charging virtuosity with feeling and vigor.

As the cheat recounts his life in a café, he tells the story of his first sexual experience – the sequence begins with an image of two lovebirds, a couple of doves. It is so untypically direct that it might as well be a coincidence, a remainder of the production’s spontaneity and freedom. That spontaneity feeds into the moment when the cheat is interrupted by the countess with whom he had shared this experience decades ago, and now she wouldn’t recognize him. She starts a monologue – the authenticity and internal life of the situation, Guitry’s mannered body language with which he reacts to her dimmed memories signifies a touch of reality, the hours and days spent working on the film, achieving an unfalsifiable sense of inhabitation.

The film’s most improbable and haunting scene shows the young cheat (played by Serge Grave, around 16 at the time but the physique of an 8-year-old orphan) realizing he had lost his entire family. In the austere framing, he is just hitting his head to the wall, contemplating about the impossibility of considering such loss.

It seems as if Grave’s tragic nodding was a reaction to Guitry’s voice-over – the self who suffered in the past is now acknowledging the fake reconciliation from the future. In a few seconds, the film’s richness is encompassed. The playful, self-aware defiance of linear time is given weight by the profundity of the actor’s presence – there, the innocence of a teenager forces its way in, forgetting about instruction and ignoring absurdity.

A hollowed chest, a small head, the hair still neat, bearing witness to the nearness of a once caring family, the genuineness of a face, before the exposure to street-wisdom, the beady eyes preserved in the moment of solitude by a fascinating poser with an immense skull and masterfully calibrated gaze.

And I wonder if all that is not trickery – the formidable Sacha Guitry showing exclusive attention to his own absorbing persona. And at once: showing the sharpest attention to life’s most delicate instances.

Flashes of deception rush into my mind occasionally and I think of the film’s universe with warmth.

Grave’s harrowing, catatonic movements; I could never forget them.

Three Sentences on Mani Kaul’s Mati Manas

The desiccation of clay happens invisibly, undisturbed by the presence of camera, sculpting the passage of time, as the rainy, suffocating, slimy mud turns into dry and coarse pieces, becoming one with the sunburnt palm of the ceramist for an ephemeral moment, then flaking away, falling to the cracked, outcropping ground which itself just slipped into its welcoming, summery, ochre dress, leaving the heavy, glutinous fur behind, at least until the ceramist decides to sluice the remaining down from his hand or an otherworldly rainfall hits the village only to reset the process.

Let water melting into air to the ever-changing rhythm of a free verse as no modification of weather nor tempo of solidification can be identical or prescribed by a systemic structure, as much as the incalculable light, which can change without giving a chance to seize the instant, clay will take its time going through constant alteration before it manifests, providing shelter for sleepy kittens and exposed to the clumsiness of inattentive children and crude dishwashing.

Mani Kaul is a sincere acolyte of the matter and in his film Mati Manas, he humbly engages in its dance with air and heat, gliding through twilight’s dim beauty and the celestial clarity of the sun’s zenith, displaying a fascinating spectrum of color, light, smoke and palpability, inspiring to step out of the cinema and learn by first-hand experience.