Blog cinema


Satyajit Ray
Jean Epstein’s Finis Terrae – To navigate one’s emotions
“Ten” by Abbas Kiarostami

Satyajit Ray

For quite a long time, I didn’t understand what makes Satyajit Ray’s movies feel like home to me and why they gave me what I would call a warm and unromanticised feeling of consistent, fundamental goodness and emotional nourishment. Initially I thought it may simply have something to do with my affinity for the Indian culture and a certain atmosphere in Ray’s movies which, for me, cannot be completely separated from the cultural aspect (or, rather, my personal emotional associations in relation to it.)

But there’s something else too, at least as significant: Ray’s characters are deeply and joyfully alive, even in the midst of suffering. There’s a sense of fundamental trust in life, which is why Ray’s characters never despair or, if they do, it’s only temporary and they always rediscover hope. There’s something which is always there, supporting them, a cradle of unconditional love, which is firm and unshakable, but also gives them the freedom to explore, to live their lives fully (the joy, as well as the pain), to realize their potential, a love that is both impersonal and, on the other hand, very personal and intimate, a love or a presence which resists any potential attempts to intellectualize it. It is this deep connection to life, to full-fledged life that gives me that sense of home and reconnects me with it, or, much sooner, reminds me that it’s always there.

(You won’t find evil characters in Ray’s movies and even the more crooked ones are ultimately profoundly humane and rather funny. And as much as I don’t like cultural clichés, I see this as part of an Indian approach to life.)

Jean Epstein’s Finis Terrae – To navigate one’s emotions

Stills from “Finis Terrae” by Jean Epstein

Years ago when I was in high school I watched Epstein’s Le Tempestaire and it left a lasting impression on me. Around about the same time (or maybe a bit later), I found out about Finis Terrae, but I kept postponing watching it for years. A couple weeks ago this movie came back in my awareness and, while I was talking with a friend who currently lives in a city on the coast of Brittany, I asked him if he knows about it because I felt like watching it. He knew about it and told me that it was actually shot on an island nearby. A few days later I watched the movie.


Close-ups are interspersed with frames wherein the characters are dominated by the immensity of the space surrounding them (*a), pointing to their isolation and loneliness, the paradox here being that they have all this space for them only and yet they are trapped and there’s a painful rift between them and the landscape (I will come back to this later, because this is just one side of it). Nature here is not idyllic, nor comforting, nor welcoming – it’s harsh, immense and rather unfriendly, or at least indifferent in its majesty, which renders the four men as mere aliens. And, mind you, this is not necessarily a case of nature vs. man, not at least since here nature sometimes looks more like dead nature and is predominantly mineral. This, on the other hand, doesn’t mean that Finis Terrae doesn’t speculate the potential of a series of contrasts: man-made objects and natural “objects,” repressed and expressed, soft and hard (like, for instance, the stormy, rapturous sea and the silent, implacable boulders – but even rocks get eroded and sculpted by water in time.) The whole universe depicted in the movie is simultaneously raw and deeply tender and humane.

And yet, even though I was talking about a rift between the men and the landscape, what eventually happens is that the former passes into the later and vice-versa as the two constantly act upon one another, absorb each other’s moods and behave like communicating vessels (however, here the term communicating vessels is somehow inappropriate since this communication happens indirectly or unconsciously as well, and if there’s a rift between the men and the landscape it’s because they are unaware of their own emotions and their intensity.)

Also, even if, except for the four men, there seem to be no other living beings on the island, everything is alive. Is it that the landscape swallows the men, like in frame no. 2, where one can easily mistake Ambroise for yet another rock? Or is something else at play as well?

An undercurrent of tumultuous passions runs across the entire movie (water, after all, is a common symbol for feelings and/or the inner realm). Behind these rugged faces simmer entire universes overflowing with intense emotions – hate and love, separation and longing, harshness and tenderness, where the former eventually melts into the latter, just as turbulent waves crash back into the deep peaceful sea. Emotions which overwhelm and are hard to contain, or which one doesn’t even know how to express, which leads to them becoming sublimated into the landscape itself. This is the other thing that happens: the characters are surrounded by concretized expressions of their own internal landscape (after all, Eastern metaphysics see everything as a manifestation of the Self). Emotions one can touch, in the most literal sense. Fog, smoke, wind, waves, gravel, sand, giant rocks, the sky: these are just as many expressions of inner passions. And if the characters are swallowed and dominated by their surroundings, that is to say that they are swallowed and dominated by their own emotions, which became larger than themselves (this is not man vs. nature, this is man vs. his own inner world.) Thus, what is most intimate becomes impersonal and, in a way, there is no Other anymore (an island). This sublimation of the emotions brings unity (*b.)

The storm comes and then it passes, while strife morphs into connection: the two women on Ushant who were at odds with one another lean on each other affectionately as they wait for news about their sons (frame no. 3.) And, after going through their own conflict, the sons themselves (re)discover the deep friendship they share. In the face of a common fear (the storm, losing people they care about) they come together and suffering makes them long for gentleness and bonding. It’s as if the price got too big to hold on to grudges and separation, life is too short and loneliness becomes too heavy a burden. One longs and searches for shelter not only from the sea storm, but equally from one’s own ravaging, violent emotions which threaten to destroy one’s very being and the possibility of connection.


(a) Leaving these particular frames aside, I’ve rarely seen a movie which gives such a visceral sensation of space.

(b) Therefore, on the one hand they are tiny compared to the vastness of the space around them, but at the same time, since the landscape represents their concretized emotions, they are as large as the landscape and everything is them. Symbolically, a face is a landscape.

(c) On a side note: in black and white, the glowing seaweed (later to be burnt) resembles film strips (frame no. 1.)

“Ten” by Abbas Kiarostami

Stills from “Ten” by Abbas Kiarostami

The fixity of the frame leads one to see/notice what one normally doesn’t see/notice: a myriad of gestures, facial expressions, the jewelry on the driver’s hands, the play of light on the persons’ bodies and on the inner surface of the car, countless details and events happening outside the car.

What one can see through a car window is inevitably limited from a physical standpoint. Moreover, looking through the window of a car in motion, it’s as if one can only perceive reality in fragments, sequentially. One longs for totality and unity (a cinema that could record everything that is, was and ever will be). But here is the paradox: due to the fixity of the perspective I was talking about, and the ensuing intensification of our attention and our involvement, one becomes capable of noticing the inherent totality in the fragment (I recall that quote from Blake, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.”)

One questions what goes on in the invisible realm: what does X. think about while staring through the windshield? What thoughts and feelings hide behind a certain facial expression or a certain look? Or: how does the prostitute look like? I’ve always been fond of the concept of the ambiguity of the real: in frame no.3, does the child frown because of the sun or is he secretly smiling?

An ongoing curiosity as to what lies outside the frame – what is drives (no pun intended) one to want to know what is not. (In a way, though, outside the frame there is only the void, because what lies within the frame is itself mere illusion: shadows on the wall or pixels on the screen.)

Truth (if truth is the goal) can be found in the mundane, in the apparently trivial aspects of life, while having a conversation during a car ride. Each of the car trips is taken with a certain goal in mind: a person has to go from A to B and the conversation is secondary, in the sense that it arises circumstantially – but, as least as far the viewer is concerned, it’s the conversations that matter, not so much where a certain someone has to go to or where they come from. 

At one point the driver says that she has more important things to do than to cook and vacuum the house. I know in what sense she says it, but, leaving that aside, who is to decide that vacuuming the house is less important than writing or taking photos? It’s all a question of perspective and involvement. One can become enlightened by vacuuming the house.

Truth might also be elusive, as elusive as trying to fix your gaze on a certain image while looking out the window of a car in motion.

There is drama as well, even if not in the more conventional way. It unfolds in and through the dialogues – a conflict between a mother and a son, women talking about their break-ups or hardships, tensions between a woman and, by all appearances, her ex-husband.

Fiction + documentary: what goes on inside the car might be directed, but most of what goes on outside of it is not and there is, potentially at least, an interplay between the two, an ongoing dialectic.

One thing that I believe cinema is meant, or at least is very suitable for, is to teach one how to see – the visible, as well as the invisible.