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At the Movies



The Quiet American, Phillip Noyce’s new version of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, was shelved for a year because the atmosphere after Sept. 11 seemed unfavorable to a story that cast doubt on the good intentions of U.S. foreign policy. The movie, given a brief run in several cities this month so that Michael Caine might qualify for as Oscar nomination as Best Actor, is worth seeing when it is released for wider distribution in 2003.

Greene’s work, which seems so cinematic while one reads it, has not often been successful on the screen. Perhaps Caine deserves an Oscar for suggesting so well what is usually understressed: the worldly-wise point of view of the narrator. In this case the narrator is a British foreign correspondent named Thomas Fowler, in Saigon to observe France’s struggle to hold on in war-torn Vietnam. The movie eliminates many of the agnostic reflections that Greene makes part of Fowler’s inner voice, but Caine captures the deeply disillusioned tone of that voice as he observes the naive title character, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), supposedly in Vietnam with a medical aid mission.

The two men complement each other, with Pyle’s awkward dancing and earnest sloganeering about democracy providing an effective contrast to Fowler’s use of opium and refusal to take sides. Oddly enough, Pyle is soon calling Fowler his best friend, perhaps because the journalist maintains his mannered calm even after Pyle announces that he wants to marry Fowler’s lovely mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen).

As in the novel, the love-triangle is the least successful aspect of the material, since Phuong is too much an object of male fantasy, lighting Fowler’s opium pipe and seemingly available to anyone who will offer her the security of marriage. Much better is the gradual exposure of Pyle’s intentions to impose American domination of the area through support of a “third force” between communism and colonialism. Greene’s critique of American policy may be even more relevant today than in 1955, but what makes “The Quiet American” work is the even-handedness with which Pyle’s “good intentions” are balanced by Fowler’s near-despair as he is forced to make an honest appraisal of his life as old age approaches.

The cinematic event of the season is Aleksandr Sokurov’s extraordinarily beautiful Russian Ark, filmed in high-definition video in one uninterrupted take in the Hermitage museum of St. Petersburg. To explain this technical achievement, the longest uninterrupted shot in the history of film, would require a long, complicated article. Audiences will notice a rejection of montage, and feel an elation as they glide effortlessly from room to room while 867 well-rehearsed actors, plus hundreds of extras and three live orchestras, perform on cue. To the director, technique was a tool “to live a specific amount of time in a single breath,” as well as a way to pay tribute to the Hermitage as the ark of Russian history and culture.

The action takes place in the time of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, of Nicholas I and Nicholas II. The narrator is a contemporary director, invisible to everyone around him, who meets a supercilious 19th century French marquis (Sergei Dreiden) in the Hermitage. Together they share a time-traveling journey beginning in the 18th century, meeting the present director of the museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, and wandering into an outside workshop to hear an account of 20th century horrors. The marquis, a diplomat who had visited Russia before, has a complex love-hate relationship with the country; he and the unseen director argue passionately about the art around them, the former contending that Russian art is imitative rather than truly European, and that only Germans can compose good music.

Passing through the salons and corridors of the Winter Palace they witness astonishing scenes: Peter the Great thrashes his general with a whip; Catherine rushes to find a place to relieve herself during a rehearsal of her own play; the grandson of the Persian shah arrives to apologize for the murder of Russian diplomats in Teheran, and hundreds of courtiers dance the mazurka at the final royal ball in 1913. Elegance, pessimism and humor permeate these images of the past; those who know Russian history, of course, will profit more than the rest of us from the marquis’ ironic comments. Somehow, despite all the inadequacies of the pre-Revolutionary period, “Ark” seems to dance before us, conveying an exuberant sense of vitality. As its doors are closing, the marquis refuses to leave; “There’s nowhere to go,” he declares, “I’ll stay.”

Sokurov insists that film and video represent “another life”; like his mentor Andrei Tarkovsky (“Andrei Rublev”), he is known for his austerity and constant preoccupation with the relationship between body and soul. In “Mother and Son” (1993), as the son cares for the dying parent, a butterfly clings to her hand. Sokurov’s work is demanding, meditative. His 1998 Vatican “Third Millennium” prize “for the development of humanistic ideas in cinematic art” seems well justified.

The advance hype among sophisticates for Spike Jonze’s Adaptation was so strong that I was, perhaps inevitably, disappointed. In a clever follow-up to “Being John Malkovich,” Jonze again draws on a scenario by Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), but this time Kaufman writes himself into the script as someone with a high-anxiety writer’s block. No wonder: being ordered off the “Malkovich” set produces a flashback to the beginning of life on earth, followed by an assignment to adapt Susan Orlean’s best-selling book, The Orchid Thief. The problem is that Kaufman, a passionate admirer of the book, immediately swears he will avoid all commercial exploitation of the material, but hasn’t got a clue how to proceed.

“Adaptation” combines Kaufman’s mammoth insecurity with the story of John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the title character of Orlean’s book, who turns out to be an outspoken redneck with a few teeth blacked out. Orlean (Meryl Streep) had run him down in Florida after reading of his arrest for stealing orchids from protected swampland. In the movie their relationship blossoms as Laroche explains Darwin and makes her believe that his search for a ghost orchid is an expression of his passion for the beautiful.

Cage’s paranoia about his screenplay is an amusing contrast with his usually confident screen persona, and things get worse when his near-illiterate twin brother Donald (also played by Cage), moves in with him. The boorishly cheerful Donald quickly concocts a formulaic Hollywood thriller after taking Robert McKee’s well-known screenwriting course. Overwhelmed both by his writing problem and his excessive timidity with women, Charlie then takes McKee’s course himself, and the movie ends with a mélange of drugs, car chases, and murder, simultaneously presenting and satirizing its material.

Cage and Streep get legitimate laughs, one by exaggerated antics, the other by remaining poised while saying or doing ridiculous things. Chris Cooper is best as a garrulous naif who wants to know why he can’t play himself in the movie version of The Orchid Thief. At the end, viewers may wonder if Jonze and Kaufman haven’t been too interested in intertextuality for their own good; they convince us that they see through the formulas, but don’t really know how to resolve their story.

Blackboards, directed by 20-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf and shot in the Kurdish area of Iran, won’t get the distribution it deserves. Despite some repetitions and narrative awkwardness, it includes more emotionally powerful moments than any other recent movie, beginning with a shot of men struggling up a mountain path, blackboards strapped to their backs. They are teachers in a search for students; we follow two of them who break off from the others.

Reeboir (Bahman Ghobadi) meets a group of boys bowed down with contraband they are taking across the Iraq-Iran border; they say they have no time to learn. Nevertheless Reeboir becomes friends with one of the boys and teaches him to write his name. Meanwhile Said (Said Mohamadi) finds a band of old men, along with a young widow and her child, who are anxious to return to their village after the Iraqi regime used chemical weapons against them.

The area is desolate and beautiful; helicopters overhead also make it dangerous. Conversation is as minimalist as the lives these people endure, but they take care of each other, and the directness of their exchanges is often amusing. A sick old man who has great difficulty urinating provides a moment’s humor without losing his dignity. A boy chasing a rabbit becomes an adventure, while the elderly show a sense of reverence. The old man who accompanies his widowed daughter, Halaleh (Behnaz Jafari), thinks he will only know peace if she is married before he dies. Eventually a marriage is arranged, even though Said has nothing to offer but his blackboard. He writes, “I love you” on it and tries unsuccessfully to get Halaleh to repeat the words, but when they reach the border, he does not want to cross. The couple is then officially declared divorced, and Said has to give up the blackboard.

There is no need to strain for allegorical interpretation to appreciate this non- sentimental but surprisingly moving picture of everyday humanity subjected to the inhumanity of war. “Blackboards” won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2000.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His email address is Scunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 2002