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At the Movies

War and Family


Those looking for undemanding movie distraction can go with confidence to Kevin Reynolds’s The Count of Monte Cristo. The sword fights are vigorous; the hero, Edmond Dantes (James Caviezel), is a handsome commoner; and Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), the aristocratic villain, is easy to hate. The recent Bravo mini-series with Gérard Depardieu had more suspense, sex and character complexity, but the new movie has the advantage of being in English and gives special attention to the Abbé Faria (Richard Harris), the wise priest and fellow-prisoner who befriends Dantes at Château d’If.

It doesn’t really matter if, like me, you’re weak on post-Napoleonic French history. Fernand, supposedly a friend, perusades the local magistrate to send Dantes to the dungeon because of his innocent willingness to deliver a letter for Napoleon. The heroine, Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk), is mostly a passive figure. Told that Edmond has died at Château d’If, she reluctantly marries the treacherous Fernand but keeps on her finger the simple string badge of her troth to the hero.

The movie exploits Alexandre Dumas’ gift for fast-moving narrative, and the scenery is often spectacular, which largely compensates for the movie’s banal dialogue. Life is seen in florid, two-dimensional terms, especially on Chateau d’If, where Edmond’s dismal existence is interrupted once a year for a strenuous flogging by the evil warden. But at last the Abbé Faria bursts through the floor of Edmond’s cell, and gives him a crash course in grammar, geography, philosophy and fencing, as well as a secret map leading to an enormous cache of buried treasure.

The Abbé dies in the dungeon, but Edmond escapes in the Abbé’s body bag, only to be captured by pirates. When their leader forces him to fight Jacopo (Luis Guzmán), one of the pirates, Edmond disarms him but spares his life, and Jacopo becomes his faithful follower. After finding the secret treasure, Edmond returns to Marseilles as the wealthy Count of Monte Cristo and throws an elaborate party that brings all his enemies together.

The rest of the movie is given over to the execution of his revenge, hardly the message U.S. audiences most need this season. Edmond, of course, could plead that there was no United Nations or World Court as yet and hence no alternative to his “just war.”

For something more thoughtful and moving, seek out The Son’s Room, a new movie about family loss by Nanni Moretti, an Italian director previously known only for comedy. “Dear Diary,” his previous film, was based on his real-life experience with cancer, and had him scooting all over Rome on a Vespa, making wisecracks about the incompetence of doctors. His medical scare may have made Moretti more reflective, but he remains writer, director and chief actor of his films, and has not completely surrendered his sense of humor.

“The Son’s Room” begins with a series of deft touches that describe a genuinely happy family with two high school-age children. Giovanni (Moretti) enjoys working as a psychotherapist in Ancona and running along the sea with his handsome son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice); we see a credible, non-sensationalized love scene with his beautiful wife, Paola (Laura Morante); and both attend the basketball games of their daughter, Irene (Jasmine Trinca).

Then tragedy strikes. Andrea is killed in a diving accident, while his father is making a rare house call to an emotionally insecure patient. A terrible moment occurs in which Giovanni betrays his bereavement to Irene, suddenly frozen on the basketball court. A series of painful scenes end with the tightening of the screws on the son’s coffin. Paola gives up her work, Giovanni pays only perfunctory attention to his patients, and Irene is forced to grow up fast. Husband and wife isolate themselves in grief. He rides a ferris wheel to exaggerate his physical fears; she reads a letter from a girl Andrea had met on vacation and wants to meet her. Irene says the least they can do is have a Mass said for her brother. Though the church scene is moving, the priest’s sermon on the mystery of evil only enrages Giovanni, and none of the family goes to Communion.

This is a movie that may bring you to tears, but it truly earns those tears and is never exploitative. Its compassion is deep and perceptive, as when Giovanni complains that all their dishes are chipped, and then angrily breaks the teapot he and Paola once mended together. Deep sorrow coexists with human comedy, the latter provided mostly by Giovanni’s patients, who remain caught up in their own problems. But Moretti avoids presenting these secondary characters as buffoons, and when a couple of them decide to end their treatment and thank their analyst, there are moments of healing and acceptance. “The Son’s Room” won the best picture award at Cannes last May, and will be on my “10 Best” list for 2002. It refuses to paste a neat resolution over its inherently tragic situation, but offers a sense of survival and future growth.

It’s hardly surprising that the recent wars in the former Yugloslavia have produced several depressing movies with a near-apocalyptic outlook. This is all the more reason to praise Danis Tanovi´cs No Man’s Land, which manages to make the Serbian-Bosnian war seem as absurd as it was deadly. Perhaps this is because Tanovic, a Slovenian, can see the humanity of participants on both sides, and understands that the tragedy of conflict can also include farce.

This maneuver confuses both the Serbian and Bosnian commands, who call in the U.N. peacekeeping forces to investigate. The latter are waylaid by Jane, an English TV reporter looking for a story. After it becomes clear that an expert is needed to deactivate the mine beneath ´Cera, her threat of publicity goads the callous U.N. Gen. Soft to drive up to the front lines with his girl friend. The German mine expert is no help. Finally, the general gets the cameras turned off and everyone out of the area. Everyone but poor ´Cera, who is still lying on his back with a mine under him as the movie ends, ironically, with a lullaby. Amazingly, Tanovi´c manages to make much of this depressing material funny, and to show us that despite the war Bosnia remains green and beautiful.

Add Tsai Ming-Liang’s name to your list of Asian directors worth following. His What Time Is It There? manages to be all at once a study in loneliness, a meditation on time, and an examination of family dysfunction.

At the outset, an exhausted father smokes a cigarette and dies without a word being spoken, leaving his son, Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng), with a mother (Lu Yi-Ching) who actively awaits her husband’s reincarnation. Hsiao Kang sells watches on the streets of Taipei, where a lovely customer (Chen Shiang-Chyi) insists on buying the dual-time wristwatch he is wearing because she is about to go to Paris. She even brings him a cake as part of the purchase price. After she leaves, there are several fine comic bits showing Hsiao Kang changing the hour hand of various clocks around the city to Paris time.

Tsai knows how to make good use of a quiet moment and never moves his camera, which somehow magnifies our sense of desire and awareness that the characters are failing to communicate with each other. The funniest sequence is one in which the mother ladles a duck and rice dinner onto her husband’s plate as the bewildered Hsiao Kang continues eating. He doesn’t understand why his dead father gets better meals than he does. Less successful are the scenes showing Chen’s adventures in Paris. I couldn’t believe she would be left lonely there. “What Time Is It There?” should appeal to philosophers and poets, but despite its frequent deadpan hilarity, the overall experience is melancholy.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002