06 septembre 2005

The Mahabharata (1989/Peter Brook)

The Mahabharata (1989/Peter Brook/UK/France) ++

One major Indian founding scripture is the great epic of the Bharata dynasty. The Indian subcontinent is also known as Bharata. Contemporary to the Old Testament, this sacred document, Mahabharata, unfolds four to seventeen times longer than the Bible (according to sources). "The political history of the human kind" as Vyasa the writer-narrator calls it. They say everything that is in the Mahabharata can be found somewhere else and what isn't is nowhere else.

An impressive Indian genesis developing all the subsequent intricate semi-gods genealogy, overcrowded by minor characters with complicated names and head-scratching cross-family ties. The Pandavas family and the Kauravas family are the princes claiming each the exclusive authority over Earth and the human people, leading up to a global war summoning all the powers, tricks and politics of Gods, magic creatures, warrior champions and humans. On each side of this merciless fratricide conflict, a secret weapon could annihilate all things and depends on the judgement of its owner. A battle for the control of power, involving pride and competition, allegiances to ideas or to friends, gambling, exile, humiliation, sacrifice, education, asceticism and wisdom.
- Arjuna, one Pandava brother, the warrior model, is the hero of the film, if there are any central character in the multitude. He's instructed by lord Krishna, incarnation of Vishnu.
- Karna, is the illegitimate son of Kunti, mother of the Pandavas princes, who was abandoned on a river in a cradle, like a Moses-type character. Ignoring his identity, he is adopted by the Kauravas and will fight on their side. He is as skilful a warrior as Arjuna, his brother, and wants to defeat him in a duel.
- Bhishma is an invincible general on the side of the Kauravas, who could decide the time of his death, a power gifted by a god.
- The five Kauravas will marry the same wife, and unite as one ultimate warrior: eyes, ears, heart, arms and legs.

Both mythological and religious, this legendary prehistory constitutes a remarkably woven array of moral values in the philosophy of Hinduism, distinctive from the good/evil dichotomy of monotheistic western religions. Evil is sometimes a way to a greater good, such as lies, betrayal, deception or killing, because karma supersedes life.

Adapted by Jean-Claude Carrière (Luis Buñuel's screenwriter) after 20 years of researches and travels throughout India, and the publication in 1985 of a book on this legendary text unknown in the western civilisation. In 1984, he writes a 9h long stage play for Peter Brook. A film version is shot in 1989 in the French studios of Joinville near Paris, for a TV series running 318', later edited into a 171' theatrical version.
The motion picture I saw is compacted in 3 parts, largely digested, with short cuts and quick summaries of the historical backdrop. Some cuts are a little abrupt and the story speeds up at times.
-The game of Dice, tells the origin of the Gods, the birth of the princes, and how the kingdom of Earth is lost on a roll of dice.
-Exil in the Forest, tells how the younger branch of the family, the Kauravas who lost the game of dice, are banned for 12 years, de-possessed of everything they had and prepare the vengeance.
-War. tells the great battle at Kurukshetra, the inevitable conclusion of the political rivalry, when the Kauravas are victors helped by Krishna.

All the digressions are difficult to follow, complicated by long names recited in strings and characters with multiple identies or variable alignment. Although each one has an amazing story and a fully constructed personality. The stagey adaptation in studio soundstage, makes for a rather stylized and symbolic rendition of violence, war and magic. The baroque ensemble cast is composed of actors of various ethnicity, British, Irish, French, African, Japanese... all dubbed in post-synch with british accent. Ironically very few indian actors. Bruce Myers plays a great Krishna, disturbing like "mysterious man" in Lost Highway.
From a cinematic standpoint nothing is very much innovative nor particularly impressive aesthetically, because of the very stagey look and the flat mise-en-scene. The only cinema special effects are some superimpositions and a nice reverse footage when a creature dives under the ground (like in quick sands). However simple the production can be it is very tasteful and doesn't get cheesy like the old Roman Hollywood epics. This one compares with Peter Jackson's trilogy easily. Kaidan is a good approximation for the narrative style I suppose.

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2 commentaires:

HarryTuttle a dit…

Post edited for a more complete review.

This film is a great introduction to the rich and complicate principles of indian mythology. It's fascinating culturally, and narratively. It made me want to find out more about traditional indian culture and understand better who were each of the characters involved in this epic. Each chapter could make a feature length film with a Shakespearian drama. That's why this adaptation is a little disappointing and frustrating, so I hope to get a chance to see the TV version at least. Critics report the experience of the 9h stage performance was spectacular.

Clearly there is a material ripe for cinema creations there! I wonder why the Mahababharata didn't inspire more directors...

HarryTuttle a dit…

This review was published at Indian Auteur (June 2009). And some details corrected by readers (see comments on the linked page).