By JOSEPH CUNNEEN
Those who work hard all week and are looking for a movie escape wont get much help from recent openings. Ralph Fiennes, who lent his distinguished presence to a pre-Christmas cinematic marshmallow named Maid in Manhattan, gives a hauntingly memorable performance as a schizophrenic in David Cronenbergs Spider, a just-opened, far superior film, but many would prefer not to be tormented on their night out.
The movie, based on the 1990 novel by Patrick McGrath (who also wrote the screenplay) centers on Dennis Cleg, recently discharged after a long period in a British mental institution. Arriving on a train from London, a long stream of passengers walk past the camera before he finally emerges, looking terrified and feverish. For the next 97 minutes, we live with his phantoms.
Dennis has been assigned to a halfway house close to where he lived as a boy, in a neighborhood dominated by a giant gas tank. His new home is under the steely control of Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). When she turns on the faucet for his bath, rusty brown water begins to fill the tub. The next shot shows him curled up in the tub, confused and defensive.
Dennis wears four shirts at once, collects string in the street, which he weaves into odd little webs, and records indecipherable impressions in an old notebook he keeps under a rug. Since there is little to do at the drab group home except become frustrated by jigsaw puzzles, he spends more and more of his time reliving the scenes of his childhood, observing his choleric plumber father (Gabriel Byrne), his mother (Miranda Richardson) , who called him Spider, and his younger self (Bradley Hall). There is no voice-over; Fiennes manages to create a character from the inside, muttering only a few unintelligible sentences, furtively rolling one cigarette after another. The actor manages to involve us in his nightmare world without ever looking anyone in the eye.
Cronenberg has elicited impressive performances from the whole cast and is to be praised for not relying on special effects. Though Howard Shores tortured score is sometimes intrusive, the audience is not subjected to gratuitous shocks. McGraths novel is presented as Spiders journal; in the movie we gradually become aware that the memories the protagonist is offering may be hallucinations. Sent to the pub to fetch his father, the young Spider cant help but become aware of the local prostitutes sitting at a separate table, their laughter made more sinister because of amplification. The boy becomes convinced that one of them, the platinum-haired Yvonne (also played by Miranda Richardson), is having an affair with his father.
One would need to see the movie a second time to decide whether some events happened inside or outside the protagonists consciousness. Spider is far more poetic than the drug-store Freudianism usually served up by Hollywood, and the image of the young boy quietly constructing cats cradles in his mothers kitchen sticks in the mind, even though many will prefer to seek out softer vehicles of entertainment.
City of God offers no relief, presenting a riveting review of several decades in a Rio de Janeiro housing project as it deteriorates into a deadly battleground for younger and younger street gangs. Director Fernando Meirelles, working from a successful novel by Paulo Lins, who grew up in the project, keeps the action going at such speed that its hard to retain more than the general outlines of the story. One moment Cesar Charlones hand-held photography shows us standard urban poverty with young boys playing soccer on the street, but soon the deadly combination of easily available guns and harder drugs have created the perfect elements for all-out gang war.
Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), the films narrator, weaves together stories about his boyhood friends, who begin as small-time thieves. Rocket explains that it was merely his ineptitude, along with a passion for photography, that kept him from following a life of crime. A second section follows Lil Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), ready to murder in his effort to control the local drug trade, and his good-natured lieutenant, Bene (Philippe Haagensen). The most spectacular and de-pressing sequence is the farewell party Bene arranges to mark his retirement from crime. Amid wild music and strobe lights, it deteriorates into violence.
The final section of the movie shows Lil Ze being challenged by an even younger gang, the Runts, some no more than 9 or 10. This occasions the movies most powerful scene in which Lil Ze, after capturing one kid, asks him to choose: Does he want to be shot in the hand or the foot? The child reverts to tears, and we are suddenly aware of how superficial the narrators casual, half-humorous tone has been. Rockets escape from a life in the project is made possible by his sensational photograph of Lil Ze and his crew, published without Zes permission in a local paper. It is a little hard to believe that he would escape retribution from the gang for this, but apparently his killer friends are happy to see themselves on the front page.
City of God employed over 2,000 nonprofessional actors, but by itself this only creates a superficial authenticity. Although Meirelles wasnt trying to make an exploitation film, he violates the sense of outrage his subject calls for by never slowing down, never really allowing us to see its young criminals as human beings. A certain cynicism may well be justified -- Rockets photographs showing police collusion with drug criminals go unpublished -- but the movie would have produced a more lasting impact if its director had made a real effort to uncover a middle level between shock and sentimentality.
Joseph Cunneen, NCRs regular movie reviewer, may be reached via e-mail: Scunn24219@aol.com
National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003