An Audition for Existence (Dir. Raghu Pratap, 2021) – Review

I’m sure that I said something along similar lines in my two previous reviews of short films directed by Raghu Pratap, but, it is worth noting that we have been friends for some years now online. It’s been a joy to see his work progress and his influences shift since he started out – the first short film he sent me asking me to review, An Image Through the Ceiling (reviewed here: https://reecebeckettreviews.wordpress.com/2019/07/27/an-image-through-the-ceiling-raghu-pratap-2019/), was a beautifully shot three minute short that dragged out an impressive amount of emotions thanks to great cinematography and sharp editing. It reminded me of the more experimental works I had tried out in 2017, with its bold phone photography and endlessly curious approach.

A little less than a year later, I heard from Pratap again, as he asked me to review his latest short, A Night of Soap Water (again, reviewed here: https://reecebeckettreviews.wordpress.com/2020/02/14/a-night-of-soap-water-raghu-pratap-2020-review/). Again, it channelled different influences. Whilst his first short seemed to scream Brakhage’s name throughout, merging his visual experimentation with a more urban cityscape and shots of nature, this second one seemed to link more to Pedro Costa, in its focus on a working class man and the gritty monochrome cinematography. Again, I liked it a lot, and I mentioned to Pratap how interested I was by this sudden difference in style. 

And so, when this link came my way, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Raghu’s previous works has been surprisingly different, and with a maximum running time of five minutes, so when I saw that An Audition For Existence ran at half an hour, I was even more curious, and thankfully, that curiosity paid off as An Audition For Existence sees Pratap bring together his previous two films and build upon what he did in those, this time channelling the influence of so many of the best directors of all time – Lav Diaz, Robert Bresson, Pedro Costa and even a little bit of Abel Ferrara… just to name a few! When watching, Pratap’s love for cinema as an art form couldn’t be any clearer – his luscious black and white digital shooting, the use of the elements of cinema that are exclusively available to film and the style (which I suppose is really the selling point of the film – the narrative stays barebones to allow space for the main character’s philosophical and existential dread) make it evident that he is somebody who has studied cinema (and other art forms) endlessly before starting to dare to make his own, which I think is more often than not a good way to act. 

From its harsh opening shot, I was impressed by this one, and seeing as it runs at 30 minutes, I’m especially glad to say that that first impression was maintained throughout. I did initially think that maybe the black and white could be swapped for colour (black and white used to be a cliche for low/no budget filmmaking, of course, due to the fact that it lends a visual style without the cinematographer having to change much), but in this case, I couldn’t picture it any other way, with the monochrome coming to effectively represent our unnamed main character’s bleak view of the world. As I said previously, the film focuses on the thoughts of a man who we know has murdered somebody, then going back to their room and finding himself crumbling under his conscience, which seems to almost enjoy tearing him apart.

It certainly makes sense that such a lonely film filled with dread should come out in 2020 too, given that lockdown was every single one of us suddenly put in our rooms with only ourselves to speak to. It’s interesting to me that the film is so focused on these existential and philosophical pains given that everybody seemed to be forced into questioning both their existence and their personal philosophies as the world around us entirely shifted so quickly. In our main character’s case here, he explains feeling that life is worthless, or feeling as if he is dead – he narrates, talking of a time ‘when I [he] was alive’ – a perspective that fits a hitman pretty perfectly and also seems to secretly wink towards Scorsese and De Niro’s ramblings in Taxi Driver in 1976. It’s just great that the extended runtime allows Pratap to explore these ideas fully, as they could so easily be suffocated if he hadn’t had the bravery to use these ideas as the foundations for his film for fear of an audience not understanding or not being interested – it is risks like this that make the low/no budget filmmaking of recent times so exciting to me, these directors have the freedom and the boldness to do just about anything that is within their creative and budgetary means. And it’s a genuinely inspiration approach, to see such a level of experimentation in a creative work from somebody as young as Pratap is, making me excited also for the next work – what’ll the influences be there? What surprises will there be? 

I saw this film at a time wherein I feel myself crawling slowly out from underneath a depression that seized my life for the last seven years, and so, when his protagonist explains feeling that “Life was the most satisfying death.” – it meant a lot personally to be able to reply with optimism. It’s a bleak film, most definitely, but on a personal level it was also somewhat life-affirming, seeing as it points towards all of the ideas that crippled me for so long, and helped me to reach my own answers once again. 

The ending of the film sees that Brakhage influence come full circle from An Image Through The Ceiling, as Pratap and Abhijeet Day (the other editor, who also provided the subtitles to the film) add an experimental interlude to represent the state of mind of the main character as he crumbles, and so it concludes a satisfying trilogy of short films from Pratap, as they cycle back to the beginning and seem to flow beautifully into one another. A striking and beautiful film, and one that I hope is followed up by an equally impressive leap in progress whenever that next effort comes along. 

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