Saturday, July 25, 2009

Indy Film Fest: Sita Sings the Blues

As you may know, Joe Shearer and I were each jurors for the Indianapolis International Film Festival. As such, we felt it was best that we not review the feature films for the category in which we were judging. (I did American Spectrum; Joe was on the feature documentary panel.) I had already written reviews of two of the movies in my category. Now that the festival has given out its awards, I felt it was OK to publish them here.

Following in the wake of "Persepolis" and "Waltz with Bashir," "Sita Sings the Blues" continues a promising trend of animated films telling international stories that aren't intended for just little children. This breezy conconction of Indian folklore, 1920s American torch songs and filmmaker Nina Paley's personal life, all told in a vibrant and varied hand-drawn style, is an unlikely combination that somehow seems like a perfect blend of diverse ingredients.

This movie is a sheer delight from beginning to end.

The story is based on The Ramayan, a piece of Indian mythology by the ancient poet Valmiki. It is the story of the great hero-king Rama, who goes through a series of arduous hardships, but told from the perspective of his wife Sita. From the feminine side of things, Sita displays an astonishing amount of patience and unconditional love. After being kidnapped by an evil king, she refuses his advances and his eventually rescued by Rama and an army of monkey warriors. But Rama sees Sita as tainted by her association with another man -- even after she faces a ritual trial of fire to prove her purity.

Paley uses a wonderfully original method to tell the story. She has three modern Indians, represented as silhouettes, setting up each segment of the story and commenting on it, often hilariously. Then it switches to a musical interlude depicting the action to the tune of bluesy songs such as "Who's That Knocking at My Door" and "Am I Blue?" by the great jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. It's amazing how the lyrics of the various tunes jibe so well with the Indian epic.

Intercut with all of this is Paley's story of her own love gone sour. Told in a minimalist style, her own heartbreak parallels that of Sita, as well as providing the inspiration for this mash-up of Indian and American iconography.

Paley -- who wrote, directed, animated, produced, edited and did pretty much everything else but provide the music and voices -- employs a variety of animation styles. Each of them is distinct, and yet we immediately recognize the major characters at first glance. There's one style for the songs, another for the narration, and a distinctly different one for the New York sequences.

I can't begin to describe how vibrant and innovative this film is. Nina Paley has given us a major triumph. "Sita Sings the Blues" will knock your socks off.

4 stars

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