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At the movies

A cosmopolitan trio of films from Iran, France and West Virginia


October Sky (Universal Pictures) tells an uplifting and nostalgic story of a West Virginia high school boy’s 1957 ambition: “I’m gonna build a rocket like Sputnik.”

Unfortunately, it’s also rather pat, aiming too earnestly at its emotional center, but after seeing the show in an audience composed largely of cheering New York inner-city middle-schoolers, it was hard for me not to give the movie two cheers for wholesomeness.

The students laughed when the rocket ricochets dangerously in the first attempts to shoot it off. They cheered Homer Hickam’s growing sense of independence. He’s proved right when he challenges the school principal and even his father.

What makes “October Sky” work, however, is that director Joe Johnston helps us feel the centrality of the coal mine to the community -- the movie was shot in and around Knoxville, Tenn. -- as well as the beauty of the surrounding hills and open sky that inspire dreams of adventure and escape.

Without the rocket project, 17-year-old Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his three collaborators would have spent their entire lives like the other high school boys of Coaltown -- except for an occasional lucky one who got a football scholarship -- in dangerous mine shafts, threatened by recurrent disasters and the inevitability of black lung disease.

“October Sky” is based on a memoir by Hickam, a retired NASA engineer. There is genuine charm in its story of boys borrowing spare parts, taking metal from unused railroad tracks and visiting a still in order to produce 100-proof rocket fuel.

Lewis Colick’s screenplay, however, is too neat and predictable. If the ’50s details seem right -- we hear “Jailhouse Rock” and “Ain’t That a Shame?” in the background -- and reinforce a sense of small town community, there is little subtlety in the presentation of Miss Riley (Laura Dern), the science teacher who encourages Homer, or the prejudice with which students first isolate the bespectacled math genius, Quentin (Chris Owen), who becomes one of Homer’s allies.

What is strongest in “October Sky” is the struggle between father and son, precisely because of the credibility with which Cooper conveys his dedication to the mine, the sense of its importance to the town and the hope that his son will follow in his footsteps. If John Hickam is flawed in his contempt for the mine’s union and his inability to encourage his son’s unexpected vocation, it is a measure of Homer’s maturity that he can both declare his independence and acknowledge his love.

School of Flesh (Stratosphere Entertainment), the new French film of Benoît Jacquot (“A Single Girl”) is an instructive contrast. Based on a Japanese novel of Yukio Mishima, it features Isabelle Huppert as Dominique, a clothing designer of a certain age who drops in on a homosexual bar, exchanges long glances with Quentin (Vincent Martinez), a bisexual boxer-hustler, and finds his sudden smile irresistible.

Ironically, some reviewers, assuming that the movie is just another invitation to indulgent eroticism, complained that it didn’t contain enough hot sex. Jacquot, however, is too elegant a director to indulge our prurient fantasies: The most passionate scene in the movie is a sudden public embrace on the sidewalk. As its title suggests, what we are to observe is a schooling of fleshly desire.

Huppert gives perhaps her finest performance: enigmatic yet constantly present in revealing close-ups; arrogant yet deeply vulnerable; seemingly impassive yet on the edge of collapse.

“The School of Flesh” draws on sordid material, exposing an upscale world of appearances to be found in every world metropolis. Fortunately, Jacquot avoids all moralizing, observing his characters with serenity while hinting at unconscious and unavowed depths.

Although the movie presents a caldron of emotion, Jacquot treats it with ironic restraint and surprising tenderness. The gay bar proprietor who seems to have a lingering fondness for Quentin and the elderly lawyer who still gives him money are seen with understanding and respect.

The Apple (New Yorker Films) is the most unusual movie of recent months, a feature-length documentary made in Teheran by Samira Makhmalbaf, 17-year-old daughter of the celebrated Iranian director, Moshsen Makhmalbaf. (Look up his entrancingly folkloric “Gabbeh” from 1996 in a well-stocked video store).

Though its subject seems unpromising -- twin 12-year-old girls have been confined to their home all their lives by their fundamentalist father -- no recent film could be better for opening up audiences to spontaneous, wide-ranging discussion.

As Samira Makhmalbaf (who is now 19) recalled, “When it was shown at Cannes last spring, one critic asked: ‘What kind of a country is Iran? Is it a place where 12-year-old girls are incarcerated or where 17-year-old girls make movies?’ ”

In a brief introduction, shot with a hand-held camera, the local welfare officer tells the twins’ parents that their daughters will only be returned to them if they are no longer kept prisoner. Neighbors had signed a petition protesting the girls’ condition; earlier, the camera had observed the girls looking out behind bars, and a hand extending from the bars, trying to pour water into a flower pot.

The two sisters, Massoumeh and Zahra, have great difficulty speaking and seem retarded; though they obviously have little social experience, they are surprisingly good-natured.

When the father brings the girls home, there is a shift to 35mm film, and the camera observes the action from an overhead angle. We leave the realm of pure documentary as the director manages both to intrude on the family and allow its members the freedom to dramatize scenes that give us insight into their common life.

The father is humanized in responding bitterly to a newspaper clipping featuring the family story: He has been dishonored, he wails. His wife is blind; he had to keep the girls locked up since he must leave the house to get the family what it needs, and boys would come into their yard if a ball came over the wall. We never see the mother’s face; she seems to shut out the world completely and is constantly angry.

“The Apple” dramatizes the twins’ first tentative steps to freedom, drawing on their fascination with the simplest things, like an apple dangling from a string held by a mischievous little boy from across the street. When the father ignores orders and locks up the girls again, the woman welfare worker locks him in, hands him a hacksaw to saw away at the bars, gives the girls mirrors and tells them to go outside to play.

The director has staged their little adventures with great skill; she also had the advantage that the girls like to mug, grab instinctively at the ice cream cart that goes by and are quick learners in the complex games of socialization that take place when two neighboring girls take them along to a nearby playground. There is humor and pathos in these vignettes, which introduce the twins to the possibilities of both friendship and consumerism.   

Makhmalbaf wisely doesn’t try to resolve the situation, but she has composed a primer in child psychology and left us with a mirror in which we may read images that extend far beyond Iran.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie critic.

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999