(Credit: Focus Features)

Arthouse or avant-garde? Decoding 10 films that seem like poetry

A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.”– Orson Welles

Poetry is a conglomeration of ideas that might be too complex or abstract for our understanding. It is a chaotic reverie of aesthetics, dreams, metaphors and memories which transcend the general linearity of time and space. Unlike prose, poetry teases and challenges the reader to delve deep and try and figure out the meaning, while consistently emphasising on the absence of a concrete conclusion. 

Interpretation of art is entirely personal. What might be poetic to me, might seem bizarre and phoney to you. Yet, we all agree to disagree. Poetic films do not fit into a certain genre. They comprise concepts and themes that lull the viewers into a sense of deep distress as they try and swim through the various ideas being presented to them. Some associate poetic films to the “arthouse”, while other to the “avant-garde”. 

Personally, I do not find it necessary to use labels to describe a particular set of films. The goal of such films is to create an immersive and exclusive experience for the viewers; it lingers in their minds long after the credits have stopped rolling. While they could focus on general themes like war, romance, tragedy and more, they could also provide a deeper understanding of the human psyche and other intricate events that might very insignificant to us. 

The term “poetic” is indeterminable, so are the criteria for a poetic film. One that stays with you and the one you return to on the coldest, loneliest days would be my definition. Here we have listed 10 such poetic films for you to watch and decide if it fits your definition of poetic cinema. 

10 films that are like poetry

10. Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989)

One of the most fascinating films in the history of cinema, Dead Poets Society is set in 1959 at the elite and conservative Welton Academy. It is the story of an English teacher, John Keating, and his awe-inspiring and innovative methods of teaching poetry via which he urges his students to “make your lives extraordinary…. Carpe diem”. Although it is mostly seen as a ‘Robin Williams Show’, the students have an enormous role in the movie, especially Todd Anderson, who goes from being the naïve and wary new student at Welton to being the one who leads the ‘O Captain! My Captain!” salute to Keating. 

This coming-of-age drama challenges the students and, in turn, the viewers to appreciate their ability to think. Robin Williams as Keating is incredibly soothing, at odds with the superstitious old-school thoughts. His objective is to liberate the students from the shackles of subordination and regain control over their thinking faculties. Ethan Hawke plays the character of Todd Anderson; his temerity to defy the administrative rules to salute his teacher, by standing on the desk with a heartfelt rendition of Whitman’s poetry, is electrifying; he is joined by the other students, within whose minds, Keating was able to cultivate new ideas. Uncynical and hopeful, this film sows in seeds of imagination and the desire to dream accentuated by a passionate teacher and his band of minions.  

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” 

9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

A household drama, Farhadi’s A Separation focuses on the marital dispute between a couple, Nader and Simin when the former refuses to leave Tehran for the sake of his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Simin applies for divorce but her application gets rejected and she moves out of Nader’s house, while their daughter Termeh continues living with her father. To take care of Nader’s feeble father, a four-month pregnant Razieh is hired but she hides her pregnancy. One day, Nader gets infuriated and pushes Razieh, accusing her of stealing and not taking care of his father. This leads to Razieh’s miscarriage and her husband Hodjat subsequently takes Nader to the court. 

The plot is not only psychologically complex but also morally challenging as you are left to decide whom to root for. Asghar Farhadi provides an intimate look at the Iranian society and a middle-class household exposes the general air of desperation, anxiety and disappointment, which is heightened by the splendid and realistic acting. It is not only a story about justice, gender, poverty but also a moral questioning of the term dignity, honesty and responsibility. The general tense air and the open-ended conclusion adds beauty to the tyranny, jealousy, selfishness and ego crudely yet aesthetically. You will be left questioning: How much would you lie to save a loved one?

What is wrong is wrong… No matter who says or where it’s written.”

8. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) 

The film revolves around the stages of growth in the lives of Chiron- childhood, adolescence and adulthood. As the African-American boy tries to survive in the world, grappling with issues including sexuality, identity, abuse and more, the advice of drug-dealer Juan functions as a guiding force and helps him get by.  

A raw and captivating take on the intersection of blackness, masculinity and vulnerability, Moonlight is visually fluid and seductive. It is mellow and compassionate about the crisis of identity and sexuality in a lonely world. Somehow the experiences of Juan and Chiron find a common ground in being a black vulnerable man trying to seek his place in the world. The subtle imagery complements the intricate character study. As Chiron adapts to the ways of the world and tries regaining confidence, we see ourselves shedding tears. In one of the most vulnerable yet beautiful scenes, as Juan teaches Chiron how to float, it is almost as if the former is teaching him to float in the waters of life. The duality of existence, the possibility of being different from what one is perceived to be, is continuously highlighted in the film. Supported by a stellar cast, top-notch writing and wonderful cinematography, Moonlight is mesmerisingly poetic and remains etched in the minds of the audience forever.  

“In moonlight, black boys look blue.”

7. Before Trilogy (Richard Linklater, 1995, 2004, 2013)

Set over a period of almost two decades, the famous Before Trilogy comprises Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013); these films chronicle the relationship of Celine and Jesse from the first time they meet at idyllic Venice, in their twenties, to the disillusionment and pangs of their mid-life crisis. A wonderful document of their whirlwind romance and chance meetings, this trilogy is the most celebrated Linklater film, and rightfully so. No matter how cynical you are, this trilogy, especially the first instalment, will make you want to spend a night with a stranger, strolling in Venice.   

Linklater is indeed a phenomenal director as he dabbles in the evolution of relationships sans makeup and time constraints. Linklater later explained why Jesse and Celine where placed in a foreign environment; he said: “When you’re travelling, you’re much more open to experiences outside your usual realm”. The film is effortless with beautiful scenes containing poignant and philosophical dialogues. Uneven, coarse and colourful, the films’ periodic “lulls” are indeed “disarming”. Celine and Jesse seem too familiar as their relationship mature on screen. From loving ferociously despite having known each other for a few hours in Venice to the feeling of lovelessness after years of marriage, the film is realistic yet dreamy.  

“Isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?” 

6. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017)

In a picturesque northern Italy, the nerdy and beautiful 17-year-old Elio meets the handsome and charming 24-year-old Oliver who is a student assistant to Elio’s father, a professor of archaeology. As the days go by, they start to get to know each other, and Elio grows increasingly attracted to Oliver, often losing control of his emotions. Although love blossoms and they share frenzied nights of passionate fervour, they are eventually confronted by the reality of uncertainty and longing. 

Poetic in the truest sense, this film is shot in a beautiful, symbolic way. Timothee Chalamet as Eliot and Arie Hammer as Oliver have splendid chemistry on screen. They deliver their dialogues with unbelievable depth and passion. There is not much nudity in the film; the beauty lies in the idea of desire, love and eventual separation. The conversation that Elio has with his father towards the end of the film is moving; it is heartbreaking to see Elio sit in front of the fireplace at the very end, where the camera focuses on his watery eyes and his state of reminiscence. As Oliver says, “I remember everything”, we feel a part of us dying inside. It is a story of every first love ever, with a twist; a perfect blend of melancholy, nature, love, heartbreak and touching performances, Call Me By Your Name is a work of art. 

“Perhaps we were friends first and lovers second. But then perhaps this is what lovers are.”

5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Charlie Kaufman, 2004)

Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski meet each other during a train ride at Montauk Station, fall in love and spend a good time before their wonderful time comes to an end. Instead of communicating with each other, Clementine erases her memories of the relationship. The film is about Joel’s erasure of memories while the viewers relieve the relationship in his head before complications arise forcing the star-struck lovers to meet again. 

A wonderful take on fate and predestination, the film basks in the brilliance of its main leads, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. With seamless visuals and whimsical music, the film leaves an everlasting impression on the viewers’ mind. Winslet’s hair colour changes following her moods. A timeless masterpiece that revels in the poetic nature of love and sorrow,  “the formidable Gondry/Kaufman/Carrey axis works marvel after marvel in expressing the bewildering beauty and existential horror of being trapped inside one’s addled mind, and in allegorising the self-preserving amnesia of a broken but hopeful heart.” 

Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.”

4. Ivan’s Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962)

Based on the experiences of the young 12-year-old Ivan’s experiences of the Second World War, Ivan’s Childhood is Tarkovsky’s debut feature film. It follows Ivan as his idyllic life in the village is disrupted by the Nazis; he is placed in a German prison camp after his family is killed. Consumed by the desire to avenge his family, this young orphan wants to return to Germany as a spy. It even led the legendary Ingmar Bergman to say, “My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease.”

Tarkovsky wanted to “convey all [his] hatred of war” and admitted to having juxtaposed Ivan’s childhood and innocence to the hellishness of warfare as “it is what contrasts most with war”. The brutality and pointlessness of warfare are highlighted through the eyes of an orphaned Ivan who has known nothing but hatred and war ever since his childhood. Via a flurry of dream sequences, memories and metaphors, the film unravels past events that lead to the culmination of Ivan’s innocence and childhood into hatred and vengeance. Tarkovsky’s non-linear tragic and poetic feature revels in haunting monochromatic cinematography, that contains textures, allusions and imagery to emphasize the cost of war. Some of the most feverishly harrowing scenes from the film include Kholin and Masha’s kiss over the trench under the shadows of the chessboard birch trees as well as Ivan’s descent into the watering hole; these scenes bear testimony to Tarkovsky’s nuanced blending of poetry and passion to form a masterpiece (although he disagrees) that would haunt generations to come. 

“In a very deep well, you can see a star even on the brightest day.”

3. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)

With 1960s conservative Hong Kong as its premise, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love revolves around two neighbours in a cramped Cantonese apartment, Mr Chow and Mrs Chan, who is entrapped in loveless marriages with absent, cheating spouses. They strike up a wonderful friendship which gradually culminates into love; however, they fail to acknowledge it at the same time, and the film is painfully excruciating to watch as it chronicles all the coincidences and missed chances.

Clever use of frames, light and shadows as well as colours, has made this Kar-wai’s masterpiece. The hapless lovers long for each other, the feeling of which is heightened by the stringed dream produced by the haunting Yumeji’s theme. All the ‘what-ifs’ and ‘could-have-been’ make the film unbearably melancholy. As they try and enact the possible situations in which their respective spouses fall in love, their ‘borrowed robes’ become their own, as they fall in love with each other. The film will make you vulnerable as you realise that it is “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” not meant to be; the visible tension, fruitless desire and “erotic sadness” permeates through the screen, conveying a sense of desolation, despair, loss and alienation as a product of love.

“I was only curious to know how it started. Feelings can creep up just like that.”

2. Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983)

A lonely and homesick writer, Andrei Gorkachov visits Italy to try and comprehend the works of a forgotten Sosnovsky who had committed suicide. Accompanying him is his interpreter Eugenia who develops a romantic interest in him, but he rebuffs her advances. Plagued by a feeling of homesickness and alienation, Gorkachov wanders through the picturesque countryside till he meets a mad Domenico who has renounced society, fearing an impending apocalypse. 

It is difficult to fully comprehend the poetic musings of Andrei Tarkovsky. The sense of alienation, frustration and fascination he manages to create via the lush depiction of a ruinous countryside evokes indecipherable feelings in us. It is quite ironical to see Tarkovsky make a film about homesickness in an essential homage to his homeland, Russia, when he escaped the same place to gain respite and exercise artistic freedom. Nostalgia is something that cannot be defined- it is a wistful and agonising recollection of memories that seem bleak; the central character is plagued by nostalgia and melancholy of loss and loneliness, the inability to translate art and culture. The Italian village is a spiritual abode where Gorchakov’s memories and past remembrances can pick up the broken pieces of his existence. A profound and hard-hitting climactic scene shocks and wraps up the harrowing sense of isolation. In the epiphanic scene, as Gorkachov attempts to cup his hands over a lit candle to keep it burning while he walks across a drained pool, Tarkovsky manages to “display an entire human life in one shot, without any editing, from beginning to end, from birth to the very moment of death”. 

We don’t know what madness is. They’re troublesome, inconvenient, we refuse to understand them. But they’re certainly closer to the truth.

1. Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)

Pioneer of the Parallel Cinema movement and a turning point in the history of Indian cinema, Pather Panchali, translated as Song of the Little Road, is Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece. The first film in the Apu Trilogy, it is set in a village named Nischindipur in rural Bengal, where the priest Harihar Roy barely survives on meagre income along with his wife, Sarala, daughter Durga and son, Apu. The film, which is based on Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel of the same name, chronicles Apu’s childhood in a lower-middle-class Bengali household, deriving pleasures from the little joys of life. Faithful to the novel, the film ends on a tragic note, while setting the premise for its sequels. 

Satyajit Ray’s genius provides a realistic and lyrical portrait of an impoverished family trying to survive on the “epiphany of wonder”. With a slow place unfolding of the narrative, Ray provides a delicate and intimate look into Apu’s family where the characters are simpletons with complex psychological presence. Durga is perhaps the most tragic figure in the film, like her aunt, the fragile Indir Thakrun; they represent the plight of the country, plagued by the colonisers, as well as Bengal. Despite being on a low budget, Ray’s exquisite cinematography is the highlight of the film; especially the scenes where a snake slithers into the abandoned Roy household, or when Durga-Apu chases the train across a wheatish meadow carpeted by wild sugarcane and rice. An excellent take on human relationships as well as the beautiful bond between a brother and a sister, Pather Panchali’s melancholy and monochromatic setting reeks of poetry and love encapsulated by a sheath of poverty and tragedy. 

“Those who came before have passed on. And I’m left behind. A penniless beggar. Not a cowrie to my name. Look, my purse is empty… Lord, the day is done and evening falls. Ferry me across to the other shore…”

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