e-mail us

At the Movies

'Touch' and 'Shine' engage; 'Prisoner' haunts


"Touch" (United Artists), based on a 1976 novel by Elmore Leonard, will disconcert fans hoping to find another "Get Shorty." Its central character, Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich), is a former Franciscan brother who possesses the gift of healing. It has Leonard's tough-but-funny dialogue and unscrupulous operators, but this time the con men are juggling religion and hucksterism as they try to exploit what seems like a mystical phenomenon.

The novel attracted Paul Schrader, a veteran director who has done fine screenplays for Martin Scorcese and is the author of Transcendental Style in Film. Unfortunately, despite his sympathy for the original, Schrader shows little talent for comedy. This is crucial because "Touch" contains some fine farce situations, despite the fact that Juvenal may be a stigmatic. This is strongly suggested in the movie's opening scene, when a blind woman recovers her sight after Juvie touches her and we notice blood on her face as well as on his hands.

Observing this startling event is Bill Hill (Christopher Walken), a fast-talking mobile home salesman who hopes to revive his bankrupt fundamentalist ministry. Hill's Uni-Faith church in Georgia had good-looking baton twirlers to warm up the crowd and a 117-foot cross that could be seen for miles. He's convinced that a bleeding healer would be an even bigger attraction. Although he wears a huge "Thank you Jesus" tie bar, and prepares a contract for TV appearances and a book by Juvie for which he gets 90 percent as agent -- "Hell, this is America," he explains -- Hill is one of Leonard's typically good-natured scoundrels.

Far more sinister is August Henry (Tom Arnold), leader of OUTRAGE, an off-the-wall Catholic traditionalist group that stages angry demonstrations to bring back Latin in the Mass. August manipulates a senile priest and crippled children into a ceremony at which he believes Juvie will be forced to perform a miracle -- which will get him and his group major publicity. The character is both misogynistic and racist, but Leonard provides him with some richly comic scenes that somehow fall flat in the movie. On trial for assaulting an officer in a previous demonstration, for example, August insists that the presiding judge has been automatically excommunicated for marrying a divorced woman and is therefore unqualified to hear his case. Schrader fails to establish clearly the wacky rationale of OUTRAGE, and the sequence doesn't have a sure sense of pacing.

Leonard says that in Touch he was "imagining mystical things happening to an ordinary person in a contemporary setting." He's not competing with Georges Bernanos or Graham Greene: Juvenal is simply a screen; contact with him impels others to reveal their deeper hopes and beliefs. Skeet Ulrich is appropriately handsome and innocent-looking in the role, as well as amusingly down-to-earth. He makes no religious claims and is glad to work at the Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center where he can remain anonymous. He doesn't pretend to understand what's happening through him but doesn't agonize over it either: "If my mind's doing it, it's psychosomatic; if it's God, it's supernatural."

Hill sends Lynn (Bridget Fonda), who used to be a baton twirler for him in Georgia, to the rehab center to find out if Juvenal is on the level. The latter realizes that she's only posing as an alcoholic, and Lynn is impressed by his knowing what she is about to say, and even more so when she sees him with blood on his hands after healing one of the patients. Unfortunately, Fonda projects glamour rather than the lower-class toughness and wit needed for the part, and the movie makes her affair with Juvenal too automatic and more central than it should be.

Leonard has no interest in resolving the serious questions implicit in his material. His satire is directed at the murderous impulses to which August's beliefs lead, and at the most poisonous figure of his story -- the TV-talk show host who has no beliefs but enjoys his cruel power over guests on his program.

Juvenal's appearance on the show is the climax in both the book and the movie, but Schrader unaccountably changes the character of the host from a man to a woman, leaving her smarmy but far less hateful. He even has Juvie tell the host he believes in God but isn't part of the church, a distracting line that may fit today's mood but is not in the book and seems out of character.

"Touch" is enjoyable and should prompt some lively discussions, but muffs a lot of the humor in its source as well as the sting in Leonard's exposure of media nihilism.

"Shine" (Fine Line Features) was so popular it was sold out when I rushed to see it shortly after opening day. But I went back so I could file a report before Academy Awards night. The movie has the extra appeal of being a real life story of a musical genius -- the Australian pianist David Helfgott -- who recovers after a complete breakdown and years in mental institutions. It's easy to get emotionally involved: Director Scott Hicks skillfully keeps the action moving back and forth in time, and we are rewarded with a happy ending. Besides, the music on the soundtrack is played by Helfgott himself. I remained somewhat resistant, however, perhaps because I'm getting tired of movie artists who are driven mad by the demands of their art.

What is most reassuring about "Shine" is the sustaining generosity the not-yet-recovered artist receives from ordinary people, even before his marriage proposal is accepted by a compassionate astrologer (Vanessa Redgrave). And although Geoffrey Rush has gotten the larger measure of critical praise as the unnerving, gibberish-spouting, post-breakdown David, a more powerful -- if less showy -- performance is turned in by Helfgott's demanding father, Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl).

Peter Helfgott, a Polish-Jewish immigrant, has the devastated look of a concentration camp survivor; when he tells his son, "You're a very lucky boy," and David repeats it, we feel they are enduring a trial they cannot determine or even fully understand. The father loves his son, but he has impossible standards for David's success as a pianist; even worse, he can't relinquish control. He successfully blocks acceptance of a music scholarship in the United States, and when David determines to go away to the London School of Music, tells his son, "You will suffer for this for the rest of your life."

Hicks makes Helfgott's piano-playing visually exciting and almost unbearably intense. In London David has a wise old teacher, Cecil Parkes, played with great humor by John Gielgud. Although disowned by his father, Helfgott determines to master his father's favorite, Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 3." He succeeds, to thunderous applause, but the effort has been too much: His collapse on stage is really the climax of the movie.

The screenplay by Jan Sardi, however, rearranges the narrative chronology: At the very beginning we have seen the mature David, chain-smoking, out-of-control, yet almost childishly good-humored, gain entrance to an Australian wine bar and entertain patrons by playing the piano with gusto and a suggestion of contentment. After David's collapse, the movie passes quickly through years of hospitals and shock treatments, but neither explains nor dramatizes the process of recovery. Suddenly the camera returns to the wine bar, whose patrons show surprising enthusiasm for classical music, and the artist meets his future wife. We get the sense that David has achieved a certain equilibrium, even in his approach to his art. "It's a mystery," he mutters; that's all we get. Although we're delighted to realize that the real Helfgott is now happily married and an international concert favorite after the deadly struggle with his father and the collapse on the London stage, it's something of a letdown.

The Russian-made "Prisoner of the Mountains" (Orion) has a more powerful ending and is a more haunting movie. A strong candidate for this year's best foreign film at the Academy Awards, it's freely adapted from a story by Tolstoy and reflects the long, tragic history of Russian conflict with Chechnya. It would be cheapening its exotic and deeply humanistic flavor to call "Prisoner" an antiwar movie, but its luminous, non-sentimental portrayal of life in a Muslim village in the Caucasus mountains is a striking testimony to the futility of violence -- and the near impossibility of halting its chain reactions.

After a sardonic opening showing the induction of military recruits, an ambush takes place on a narrow road and two Russian soldiers are taken prisoner. Director Sergei Bodrov slowly builds a complex mosaic of village life where children sing "The mountains will protect us" and centuries-old customs coexist with suspicion of Russian treachery. Meanwhile, the prisoners only gradually come to mutual acceptance; the more self-confident veteran, Sacha (Oleg Menshikov), at first is contemptuous of the reflective recruit Vanya (Sergei Bodrov Jr., the director's son).

Vanya is constantly looking out his cell window, fascinated by glimpses of village life, or winking shyly at Dina (Susanna Mekhrallyeva), the pretty 12-year-old daughter of their stern captor, the village leader Abdoul-Mourat (Jamal Sihouralidze). Both soldiers are worried about what will happen to them. Some in the village believe they should be executed, but Abdoul-Mourat's intention is to barter them for his own son, held prisoner by the Russians. Sacha keeps up his spirits with cruel jokes; Vanya uses his free time to make a paper toy bird for Dina. Grim necessity forces the prisoners to begin to build a relationship with each other and even with their village guard, who seems surprisingly good-natured even though his tongue has been ripped out.

The peace of village life, with its striking landscapes and occasional reminders of ritual, contrasts vividly with the constant sense of overhanging threat. Abdoul-Mourat has the soldiers write their mothers to come to the nearby city, hoping they will convince the local Russian commander to consent to the exchange of prisoners, but it seems impossible to tear down the walls of suspicion. Even Dina, who flirts sweetly with Vanya, accepts the realistic wartime proposition that if her brother dies, Vanya must die too.

"Prisoner of the Mountains" reflects the brutality of the conflict while respecting the humanity of its participants. Muslim partisans, hoping to move their vehicles in the dark through a dangerous area, force Sacha and Vanya to work their way through a mine field, expecting them to get blown up. When the prisoners manage to remove the mines and get safely to the other side, however, they are asked to join the community celebration and are given large chunks of roasted lamb.

Sergei Bodrov idealizes neither the Chechen villagers nor the Russians; amazingly, we come to respect them all. There is no Hollywood ending, but one somehow leaves the theater uplifted. The stunning achievement of "Prisoner of the Mountains" can best be measured by contrasting it with American movies about the Vietnam war.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 1997