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At the Movies

Plus the movie event of the year ... Film Festival


You wouldn’t have heard about it at the endlessly self-congratulatory Academy Awards, but many of the world’s best movies today are being made in Iran. And with the release of The Color of Paradise add the name of Majid Majidi to those of Abbas Kiarostami (“Through the Olive Trees”), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (“Gabbeh”) and Jafar Panahi (“The White Balloon”) as directors whose work is worth seeking out.

Although Majidi’s new film centers on the trials of Mohammed, a blind 8-year-old boy (played by Mohsen Ramezani, a non-actor who is himself blind), it is a surprisingly affirmative experience. This is due to the director’s ecstatic presentation of the beauty and power of nature; we are constantly reminded that Mohammed has to rely on a deep sensitivity to the touch and sound of everything around him while we are enjoying the flowers, trees and endless sky the camera discloses.

“The Color of Paradise” is a journey through fields and forests into mountainous backwoods country where it is as natural to pray at a roadside shrine as to delight in the chorus of birds. The frequent use of children in Iranian movies is partly due to official censorship -- scenes of physical contact between men and women are not permitted -- but we are compensated by a sequence in which the alert Mohammed, interpreting a bird’s cry of alarm, searches the ground for a baby bird that has fallen from a tree, and painfully climbs up, dangerous inch by inch, before restoring it to its nest.

The movie opens at a school for the blind in Teheran, where the boys learn their lessons with the help of well-chosen technical aids. But the school is closing for the summer, and a wretched Mohammed is left alone outside, waiting for his father (Hossein Mahjoub) to take him home. The father would prefer it if his son could be kept at the school during vacation. We learn later that the widower hopes to remarry, and a blind child would be a poor addition to the necessary dowry.

At home Mohammed has a joyful reunion with his two sisters and his deeply pious grandmother (Salime Feizi), carefully examining the latter’s face with his fingers. She shows him that the tree he planted is now as tall as he, and he rejoices in the wind blowing through fields of alfalfa. Mohammed even goes to the village school with his sisters and impresses everyone with his ability to read (in Braille). His hard-working father, however, who is presented with sympathy, takes his son to a blind carpenter; training as an apprentice would give the boy independence. The grandmother is shocked by his decision, and though the carpenter receives him in a kindly manner, Mohammed feels abandoned. There are alternating shots of the grandmother saying her beads and the boy getting a first lesson in carpentry.

Majidi doesn’t really know how to end “The Color of Paradise”; the melodramatic climax, though forcefully presented, seems a violation of its gentle overall tone. By avoiding excessive sentimentality, however, he has given us a film that is as religious as it is exquisite. You will not easily forget Mohsen Ramezani, rolling back his eyeballs the better to listen to his beloved woodpeckers.

Arin Brockovich, in contrast, is a good example of what Hollywood does well. Built on the star power of Julia Roberts in the title role, it’s a feel-good movie in which we root for a determined young, working-class mother as she takes on a giant utility. Julia makes the most of her strongest role to date, but I’m old-fashioned enough to worry about your teen-age daughters adopting Erin as a role model. It’s not that I’m upset about the skimpy attire she wears to work; I just don’t believe that constant displays of abrasiveness will help their careers or personal lives.

Not that Erin doesn’t have a reason to be desperate. I was especially sympathetic with her in the opening sequence in which, a single mother of three with no real employment credentials, she is forced to improvise non-answers during a humiliating job interview. Immediately afterwards, she is sideswiped by a careless driver, who turns out to be a wealthy doctor. Her lawsuit fails, in great part because of losing her temper and the impression her clothes make in court.

Director Steven Soderbergh shows genuine sympathy for the desperation in which so many single mothers have to live, and we’re all rooting for Erin when she finally wangles a low-paying job with Ed Masry (Albert Finney), the lawyer who had failed to win her case. Although presenting itself as “based on a true story,” the movie soon turns into a rather predictable fairy tale, with Julia gradually uncovering a deadly form of chromium that has poisoned the water supply of a Southern California town.

Though the movie doesn’t offer the anarchic sense of liberation of “Thelma and Louise,” any victimized woman can identify with it. However, it seems strange that the other working and professional women are so unpleasant. Co-workers in the law office are mean and unhelpful, and the woman lawyer whom Masry calls in to help is an unfeeling snob. But even if it makes no plea for sisterhood, you’ll find it hard not to like “Erin Brockovich.”

Joe Gould’s Secret is more offbeat, describing the complex relationship between New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell (Stanley Tucci) and his most celebrated subject, Joe Gould (Ian Holm), a Harvard graduate and charismatic panhandler who claimed to be composing a mammoth “Oral History of Our Time.” The screenplay by Howard A. Rodman, drawing on the two profiles Mitchell published in The New Yorker, shows how Gould becomes an overnight celebrity in Greenwich Village after the first piece is published in 1942, but dies a pauper’s death at Pilgrim State Hospital in 1957.

The movie is both poignant and humorous. Suggestive rather than pretentious, it doesn’t answer all the questions it raises regarding Gould’s unstable personality but shows the perfectionist Mitchell becoming so obsessed with his subject that after a second profile in 1964, he never published anything more, though he continued to come to his office for the next 32 years. British actor Sir Ian Holm is superb in a complex role; he allows us to see that Gould is manipulative, bad-tempered, a liar, a drunk, an exhibitionist, and nevertheless could have captured Mitchell’s sympathetic attention. Even though the latter recognizes Gould’s grandiosity in claiming to map the consciousness of the city, and presses him to produce his manuscript (presumably kept at a poultry farm on Long Island), he remains fascinated by the possibility of discovering an unrecognized genius.

There are cameo roles for Steve Martin as a publisher who challenges Gould to let him read his epic, and Susan Sarandon as Alice Neel, a New York artist who has done an unconventional nude portrait of Gould. But the movie’s greatest charm lies in its atmospheric capture of New York in the ’40s, with hundreds of photographs of unknown, often down-and-out faces from the past.

The movie event of the year, however, is the release by Facets Multimedia of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog. Some readers may be familiar with his trilogy, “Blue,” “White” and “Red.” These 10 one-hour films, originally made for Polish TV in 1988, were previously shown in the United States only at film festivals. A collective masterpiece, they are finally available now for sale or rent in a 5-video set.

“Dekalog” makes each of the Ten Commandments surprisingly contemporary. All the films take place in a large Warsaw apartment complex, and the episodes are linked in suggestive ways. I know from experience that one can teach a class in ethics using “Dekalog,” since each episode prompts heated discussion from students who would not have come if invited to a series of Polish movies. The material is so intense, however, that I recommend viewing them one at a time.

Kieslowski, who died in 1996, insisted that we should accept moral responsibility for our choices, but his films do not have simple heroes or villains: He knew how complicated these choices are. If you can’t get “Dekalog” at your video store, contact Facets directly: 1517 West Fullerton Ave., Chicago IL 60614 (1-800-532-2387).

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2000