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At the Movies

In art’s service


The opening of The Golden Bowl promised to be a major spring event for former English majors and those with cultural yearnings, but the Master wouldn’t have much liked it. As usual, the producer-director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, working again with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adapting of Henry James’ novel, maintain the highest production standards, take their audience to impressive European locations, and communicate a sense of refinement and assured elegance. Stung perhaps by criticism of some of their work as middlebrow “Masterpiece Theater” fare, they open with an attention-getting opening scene with uniformed guards storming an ornate Renaissance bedroom to separate two adulterous lovers amid much sound and fury. The idea is to suggest the flamboyant family history of Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), a handsome but impecunious Italian aristocrat. In 1904, several centuries after the opening scene, Prince Amerigo is about to marry the innocent Maggie Verver (Kate Beckinsale). It will take quite a while for most moviegoers to make this connection, however. In any case, the scene is over-wrought.

If directors make their own interpretation of works they are adapting, they need to remember that they proceed at their own risk. The Merchant-Ivory “Golden Bowl” exploits the star appeal of Uma Thurman as Charlotte Stant, Maggie’s best friend, who constantly throws herself at the prince, a former lover. The effect is to considerably absolve the prince of responsibility in resuming their affair after his marriage, and to reduce James’ complex study of Maggie’s growth in maturity to high-class soap opera. The movie keeps Maggie in the background and introduces embarrassingly flamboyant “entertainments” at the supposedly elegant affair the prince and Charlotte attend at a distinguished English estate.

In fairness it should be pointed out that no movie can capture the subtleties of James’s style. For “The Golden Bowl” it would be especially difficult since James is so sparing in his use of direct dialogue, and his text does not lend itself to brief “voice-overs.” Still, there is hardly reason to bother with James at all if one ignores his preference for “a certain indirect and oblique view” of the action.

Nick Nolte provides something of what is needed in his portrayal of Maggie’s billionaire father, Adam, who marries Charlotte at least partly to reassure his daughter that he will not be lonely. Fanny Asingham (Angelica Huston), who had prepared the way for Maggie’s marriage, and her disengaged husband (James Fox), offer comically contrasting attitudes to the unfolding story.

Although Northam suggests the divided motivations of the prince and Beckingsale’s growing maturity gradually becomes evident, the movie fails to capture the complex consciousness of James’ characters.

If you’re looking for more adventurous moviegoing, seek out two new Iranian movies: “The Day I Became a Woman” and “The Circle.” Since these courageous and imaginative films on the condition of women do not have national distribution, you may have to wait a few months and rent them down at a good video store.

Amazingly, The Day I Became a Woman is the directorial debut of Marziyeh Meshkini. She films the three vignettes with power and economy, concentrating on human faces and the beauty of the surrounding sea. The screenplay of her director-husband, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, explores the heart of its feminist theme without cliché or bombast. There are no slogans, just people struggling with their fates.

The first segment takes place on the day Hava (Fatemah Cheragh Akhtar) turns 9. Now she must wear a chador. She and a neighbor boy had planned to go to buy some ice cream, but grandmother tells her she can no longer play with boys, and her mother measures out the cloth needed for the chador. Finally, the grandmother relents: Since Hava was born at noon, she may play until then. The grandmother plants a stick in the sand and shows Hava the shadow it casts; when there is no longer a shadow, it will be noon. Meanwhile, however, the boy has been told he must stay inside and do his homework. The heart of the episode is in the yearning on the faces of the children: Hava sees the shadow grow shorter, and calls up at the window to beg the boy to hurry; the latter looks down, explaining why he can’t leave.

The second episode seems less inventive. Ahoo (Shabnam Teloui) is taking part with two dozen women in a bicycle race along the seashore. A man on horseback, Ahoo’s husband, gallops furiously behind them. When he comes up beside her, he yells at her to return home. The pattern is repeated: Members of her family, and ultimately her tribe, tell her she is disgracing them, but she goes on pedaling. We never learn the specifics of what she is running away from, but the determination on her face is a clear challenge to Islamic fundamentalism.

In the final segment, an old woman (Asizeh Seddighi) has a group of boys take her to the city shopping center where she buys a refrigerator, gadgets, a bed, lamps and chairs, perhaps made possible by a recent inheritance. “I never had anything,” she says simply, as she rushes through the emporium, checking pieces of colored string on her fingers that remind her what to get next. The boys cart everything away to the seashore, where it is laid out on the sand, a surrealistic outdoor living room facing a magnificent sky. The final image, in which everything is being transported out to sea on rafts made of planks tied to oil drums -- with the largest boat at the center, the lady sitting up in bed with supreme confidence -- is achingly memorable.

The Circle -- directed by Jafar Panahi, who made the delightful “White Balloon” a few years ago -- has only been shown once in Iran but won the Golden Lion at the last Venice Film Festival. It begins with the cries of a woman in childbirth; a nurse calls out, “It’s a beautiful little girl,” and there is a gasp. Everyone was expecting a boy. The maternal grandmother worries that the in-laws will ask for a divorce.

The scene shifts abruptly to a busy street in Teheran where three women look around anxiously and dart down an alley. The police detain one, and the two others hide behind a car. We gradually realize that the women have just gotten out of prison, but never learn what their offense was.

There is no overt violence in “The Circle,” but it is clear that the constant condition of unauthorized women in Iran is terror. Like the Italian neo-realists, Panahi uses a handheld camera and works principally with non-actors. We hear the constant sounds of the city but no background music. Panahi’s narrative technique is to follow the women in turn, concentrating on the terror in their eyes as they try to light a cigarette on the street without being observed.

The youngest, Nargess (Nargess Mamizadeh), who has an ugly bruise under her left eye, is anxious to return to her home in the country, which she thinks she recognizes in a print of Van Gogh she sees in a store. Arezou (Maryam Parvin Almani) shows her where to catch the bus, but Nargess wanders into a store to buy a shirt before disappearing when soldiers come by.

Pari (Fereshteh Sadr Orafai) is even more desperate: Her husband has been put to death, and when she returns home, her father calls her a whore and refuses to admit her. She goes to a hospital to visit an old friend who is a nurse (and has achieved respectability by marrying a doctor), but when Pari confesses that she is four months pregnant and needs an abortion, the friend is too afraid to help.

There is a sense of watching a documentary, although the patterning of detail becomes apparent at the end, which finds all its main characters in “The Circle” of a jail cell. Panahi forces us to live through never-ending bursts of alarm. There is nowhere for these women to go for help. It took political courage to make this movie, but the director’s deep humanism is in the service of art, not ideology.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is SCunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001