Understanding Films And How To Be A Film Critic

By Sunayan Bhattacharjee, Assistant Professor and Course Leader, Pearl Academy


“Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world,” and so said the celebrated avant-garde filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. He could not have been any truer! Interestingly though, we take pleasure in being duped by a film. We momentarily suspend our disbelief and fit right in. On second thoughts though, we can safely deduce that cinema is the most complete art form around purely because of its ability to create an alternate reality and make people stay there.


While the level of passion might differ, it goes without saying that we all have been influenced by movies in some way or the other. However, very few amongst us make an informed attempt at deconstructing the wonderful medium and understanding its intricacies. The fun of watching movies enhances manifold if we analyze the minute cinematic elements. By cinematic elements, not only do we mean visible things such as the screenplay, cinematography, editing style, characterization and location; we also mean more subtle things such as theme, message, metaphor, subtext, motivation, motif and point of view.


Here, we shall try to decipher some oft-repeated yet misunderstood cinematic terms just so that we can make better sense out of movies the next time we decide to watch one:



The theme is an assortment of broad ideas and allusions that are established by repetition of technical and linguistic means throughout the film such as alienation, power and control, transcendence through romantic achievements and the likes. Let us talk about the movie ‘Memento’ by Christopher Nolan. The overriding idea throughout the movie is an all-encompassing sense of loss.



The message constitutes what the director wants to convey. Not always does a film possess a central message. Sometimes, the film is left on an ambiguous note so that the viewers could make their own interpretations. Let us take an example to understand this. If we consider a movie like ‘Rang De Basanti’ (2006), directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, then we can understand that the movie’s central message is the responsibility of the youth towards the country.



Metaphors are elements that represent something different from their explicit meanings. Metaphors gain relevance only when they are connected with the larger connotation of the film. In fact, there is a host of examples that we can take. If we look at a movie like Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976), we can understand that it talks about the Vietnam veterans and their alienation from the mainstream American society.



A film generally conveys numerous messages. These messages are sometimes beneath the surface and often unintended. Interestingly, subtexts covey an altogether different meaning than the intended message. If we look at Alex Proyas’ ‘Dark City’ (1998), we shall be able to appreciate that it talks about Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’.



Motivations are justifications given in the film for the presence of an element. Many movies have motivated elements. We can take an Indian example to understand this. Ritwik Ghatak’s ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’ (1960) has a melodramatic scene where an Indian classical song is being punctuated with the sound of a train. This is indicative of the imminent turbulence in the life of the protagonist.



When an element is repeated in a movie such that it acquires a symbolic meaning, it is known as a motif.A motif can be a technical feature, a sound or a piece of dialogue or music or an object. A case in point could be Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’ (1955). The same sacrificial music permeates two deaths shown in the movie.


Point of View

Is the film in general told from a particular perspective or is it objective? Is the film’s point of view chiefly intellectual or emotional or visionary or realistic? History has been witness to a number of propaganda movies that have been told from a very biased perspective. Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘The Triumph of the Will’ (1935), based on Hitler’s Nuremberg Conference is a case in point.


Just in case one seeks to take the craft of understanding movies ahead and become a film critic, he/ she needs to have a thorough understanding of all the cinematic elements, some of which are mentioned above, in addition to a strong grip over existing film theories. However, nothing can replace the good old practice of watching critically acclaimed movies.


As a viable career, film criticism or film appreciation is gaining grounds with each passing day with the sheer number of online cinema portals growing at the rate of knots, not to mention the print and electronic platforms. As cinema has its genesis in literature, an aspiring film critic has to be proficient in literature as well. A comprehensive knowledge about the past and present art movements can give extra leverage to a film critic as cinema, at multiple points in history, has been influenced by the dominant art movements of those times.



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