The Berlin Film Festival will open on February 11 with Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar! This will be the second time that the Brothers will get the opening night Red Carpet honour. In 2011, their True Grit — an American Western, based on Charles Portis’ novel with the same title, opened Berlin. True Grit was first adapted to the screen in 1969 with John Wayne playing the lead.
Hail Caesar! has an impressive star cast, which includes George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Channing Tatum.
Set during the golden era of Hollywood in the 1950s — when studio bosses were virtual dictators with some of the biggest actors held captive by unfair contracts — Hail Caesar! confines itself to a single day. A studio fixer (Brolin) is urgently summoned to try and find a star named Baird Whitlock (Clooney), who has vanished from the sets of Hail Caesar — an epic tale of Christ’s life.
This story reminds this writer of another movie by the legendary Italian master, Nanni Moretti, called We Have A Pope. Michael Piccoli plays Cardinal Melville, who on being elected Pope (after the death of the Pontiff), fails to appear on the balcony at St Peter’s Square. What follows is a hilarious chase to find the new Pope.
Hail Caesar! has been on the drawing-board since 2004, and it was originally to have been set in the 1920s. The film was to have followed actors performing a play about ancient Rome. This plot was shelved, and in 2013, the Coens reworked Hail Caesar! to allow the narrative to unfold in Hollywood.
Joel and Ethan Coen are extraordinarily adept at switching from one genre to another — handling each with finesse and brilliance. They have done comedies, tragedies, horror, crime, romance, Westerns and so on.
As a young boy, Joel bought a Vivitar Super 8 camera, and the brothers made movies of what they saw on television. Their first work was called Kissinger, Man On The Go. Which probably got the boys going as well.
Their first real film came in 1984, Blood Simple — about a crafty bar owner, who hires a private detective to kill his wife. The movie had all the ingredients that would go on to make the Brother’s later films — twisted plots layered over simple stories and black humour.
We see this most vividly in the 1996 Fargo (which premiered at Cannes), where a travelling car salesman, desperate for money, kidnaps his own wife and demands a huge ransom from her father. The plan goes awry, the wife is killed and a cop (essayed by Francis McDormand), seven months pregnant (Vidya Balan in Kahaani reminded one of her), smells something foul when she meets the salesman, and slowly closes in on him, like a predator on a prey.
In 2007, No Country for Old Men sees a Vietnam war veteran stumbling upon a two-million-dollar drug money, which he keeps. But there are others out to grab it as well, and one of them is a sociopathic killer (played with terrifying cruelty by Javier Bardem, whose rise after that was dramatic).
The Coens’ Burn After Reading in 2008, a black comedy laced with hilarious extra-marital affairs, and A Serious Man (2009), talking about a Jewish guy who loses belief in his faith after professional and personal losses, are some of the other works that have been critically applauded.
Hail Caesar! promises to be another feather in the Coens’ cap.