Whether upon the deserts of Rajasthan, Texas, frigid Svalbard or the barren asphalt of a race track Kapadia presents his characters in the foreground of awesome spaces.
Somewhere between talent and beyond lie many of Asif Kapadia’s characters. Each of his features to date explore characters whose skills lead to this place. Accepting that Aryton Senna drove like magic in Kapadia’s documentary Senna may cause some to baulk; accepting that the Brazilian driver put on a great show swallows much easier.
Could you even dare to describe Aryton Senna’s talent as supernatural? I pose this to a work colleague, whether he would concede that the three time Formula One world champion racing driver had some ineffable ability beyond something as mundane as sheer raw talent. My colleague guffaws in denial: Aryton Senna was merely a good driver who repeatedly crashed and died young. Arguably my sparring partner on this issue might be the best person in the world to answer this one since he’s both an amateur magician and a petrolhead. With his ever-present deck of cards he seeks tirelessly for that sweet-spot where sleight-of-hand, showmanship and gullibility sing.
Reassuringly the lead character in Kapadia’s short The Sheep Thief also performs magic tricks. As the Arthur C. Clarke quote goes, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Ditto talent. Kapadia’s muses are generally nothing if not accomplished: the chief enforcer for a local lord in The Warrior; the Inuit who survives against all the odds in Far North; the top saleswoman in The Return; the driving sensation in Senna.
Yet like any cabaret magician the stage where Kapadia pulls his tricks is key. Whether upon the deserts of Rajasthan, Texas, frigid Svalbard or the barren asphalt of a race track he presents his characters in the foreground of such awesome spaces. Typically there’s an extreme contrast set between the deeply absorbing characters these stories follow and the sensationally spectacular landscapes they roam. Little surrounds them heightening the focus upon them. The Warrior opens with Irfan Khan practising his sword-play upon a sand dune: beige-yellow sand below, gradient deep blue sky behind. Later a scene plays upon this by having a pair of beetles scuttle across shot only for it to pan out to the villains riding horseback across their path. Briefly it is the beetles’ moment before bigger concerns are revealed.
By Far North the contrast between characters and background seems to reach an apogee with one of the most inhospitable environments imaginable. Past this lonely trio of Inuits and interloper lies nothing but pack ice and endless night. Simply put, there is nothing out there except for these characters. Senna, meanwhile, turns this on its head by making the backdrop us against the superlative skills of a single man.
As an aside, it’s nice to see Kapadia’s British side emerge with a suspected preoccupation with weather. Desert leads to snow, just as The Warrior leads to Far North, with the warrior’s visions of ice in his footprints. Irresistibly Aryton Senna often drove best in wet conditions, a fact commented upon in Senna more than once.
Back on contrasts, the lead in The Warrior Irfan Khan offers a visage to match the sandscapes of Rajasthan. With tensed brow, sunken swollen eyes and lips permanently about to form the question the film revolves around – why he plies his violent trade – he’s a great casting coup. Less impressively Kapadia chose to use ethnically Chinese actors to play the Inuits in Far North which breaks the illusion somewhat, with a move along similar lines to old-school Hollywood mix-and-match casting for ethnic parts. Sean Bean’s undoubtedly too old for the role of the man who tears older and younger woman apart but at least he looks hewn of northern stone. Aryton Senna’s averted gaze lends itself well to introspection, as the cheeky youth becomes the eventual martyr to his sport. Note the image used on the poster for Senna: eyes piercing out from the visor gap in his helmet, looking upwards into the unknowable distance.
The joker in the pack of all of this is The Return. Packaged badly as yet another cheap American horror it’s certainly no triumphant move to Hollywood for Kapadia. The first clue to its definite otherness lies in the casting of actor and playwright Sam Shepherd. Even Sarah Michelle Gellar’s presence in the lead offers a glimmer of subversion given her signature role as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The second clue lies in a feel very much off kilter similar to Vertigo, reinforced by Dario Marianelli’s subdued score. The Return feels exactly like a B-movie script floating around that fitted Kapadia’s themes in the years after The Warrior was made. Laboured and mostly unrewarding the bones of a good film stir fleetingly, one of those oddball projects thrown to promising European directors to prove their box-office mettle. The tang of M. Night Shyamalan lingers.
An air of myth and fable suffuses Kapadia’s films telescoping the personal to the epic. Comparisons with David Lean or Akira Kurosawa or Sergei Leone suit the grand visions of The Warrior and Far North but they don’t do justice to all that’s going on. Tellingly in an interview with Curzon programmer Jason Wood for Kamera.co.uk Kapadia flags up Tran Ang Hung’s Cyclo as an influence for making The Sheep Thief. This Golden Lion winner from 1995 mixes up intense imagery with a frenzied on-the-street feel for Vietnamese life.
Kapadia pulls a similar approach in each of his works, pushing in more of a spiritual introspective direction. With their mixtures of professional and non-professional casts The Sheep Thief and The Warrior are exemplar; Far North and The Return less so. Senna, arguably Kapadia’s greatest attempt at this to date, brings this aspect to a popular audience, recounting the tale of a modern-day legend caught in the reality glare of documentary, with all the archive footage and interviews. When it rains Kapadia makes you believe that a man can drive like magic.
6 March 2012