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At the Movies

Fall Favorites: Community and devotion


Ice Cube’s new movie is a daylong immersion in a Southside Chicago barbershop. The well-known hip-hop performer leads a range of comic types in a good-natured snapshot of contemporary black life that offers a ringing endorsement of neighborhood values.

Barbershop is an argument for the importance of such an institution in community life. The central plot line follows Calvin Palmer (Ice Cube), whose father founded the shop, as he comes to appreciate the human value of what it provides. The theme is developed in broadly humorous terms, by Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), the gray-haired patriarch who describes Calvin’s barbershop as “our club,” where black people can express their most outrageous opinions, insult each other and indulge in bawdy talk about women’s anatomies.

At the outset Calvin isn’t so sure; although his earlier get-rich schemes have failed, he is considering selling the store and starting a recording company. His wife is pregnant, and continuing his father’s policy of extending credit to customers and giving apprentices a chance to learn their trade has left Calvin in debt. “Barbershop” makes one think of the stage, since most of its time is taken up with comic exchanges between the barbers who work there, including a pretentious college graduate (Sean Patrick Thomas), a naive African immigrant (Leonard Earl Howze), an angry ex-convict (Michael Ealy), a young white man (Troy Garity) who claims to be more authentically black than they are, and a woman whose boyfriend is two-timing her. Most of the action outside the store follows the farcical adventures of two bumbling thieves who have stolen a convenience store ATM machine as they drag it up and down stairs and try unsuccessfully to get the money out.

“Barbershop” is not a subtle movie; the actors are encouraged to yell too much, its subplots are hard to follow, and some of the caricatures are overly familiar. But underneath the overheated exchanges about what is authentically black, there is genuine support for traditional values: solving problems without violence, going bail for your neighbor even if you’re in debt yourself, accepting the white barber within the shop’s community, and welcoming the Indian operator of the convenience store. Calvin’s wife emphasizes the importance of a solid marriage over economic success, and the African immigrant shyly hands Terri, the lone female haircutter in the shop (played by rapper Eve) a love poem by Pablo Neruda.

Although the resolution of Calvin’s negotiations with the neighborhood gangster, who wants to turn the barbershop into a girlie club, may seem too optimistic, “Barbershop” shows a healthy satiric sense in including Cedric the Entertainer’s comic riffs on such black icons as Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson and Rodney King. He even taunts his outraged listeners by declaring that O.J. was guilty.

The flap that has developed over these comic derisions reveals a generational rift between civil rights activists and younger blacks with no experience of bus boycotts, sit-ins and freedom marches. The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton both demanded apologies from the filmmaker and called on MGM to remove the scenes from future releases. Jackson accused them of “trying to turn tragedy into comedy.” In the film itself, the cynical older character is scolded by younger ones for his position. The film’s producers, director and screenwriter have all apologized. MGM said it has no intention of altering the film.

Mostly Martha is a pleasant surprise, a successful romantic comedy from Germany whose title character is a superb but neurotic chef. Her fanatic devotion to her art is hard on the restaurant owner (Sibylle Canonica), since she is apt to insult unappreciative patrons, but all this makes her eventual romance with new assistant chef Mario (Sergio Castellitto) extra enjoyable.

Martina Gedeck is a shy, repressed beauty as Martha, whose worldview is radically challenged when her sister is killed in an automobile accident, leaving a deeply withdrawn 8-year-old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste), in her care. The actress effectively suggests the subtle changes going on within her when she receives the telephone message of her sister’s death; writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck, making her first full-length film, wisely maintains silence during the moments of deepest emotion.

Although Martha is well intentioned, she doesn’t have any way of getting through to the little girl, who is stubborn, skips school to walk around Hamburg, and refuses to eat, no matter what her aunt cooks. The conflict of wills between them moves the film into deeper psychological areas, especially since Lina expresses a desire to see her father, who has remarried and is living in Italy. Meanwhile Martha becomes embroiled in conflict with Mario, since she cannot tolerate the potential challenge of another chef in her kitchen, especially an Italian who threatens to turn her workplace into a relaxed center of song and jokes.

Though it does not include the eucharistic motifs that distinguished “Babette’s Feast,” “Mostly Martha” is a worthy addition to the subgenre of movies that link food and love. Nettelbeck conveys the mad pace of food preparation in an upscale restaurant, and watching all the fine dishes being prepared may make you want to rush out to dinner. Although the director knows Martha’s single-mindedness is comic, she also respects her character: “I can relate to Martha’s obsession with her work.” The fun is doubled by Martha’s regular sessions with a psychotherapist, who seems as repressed as she is.

Since Lina isn’t interested in school, Martha starts bringing her to the restaurant, where the little girl stays up too late but is sufficiently charmed by Mario to start eating.

The narrative direction of “Mostly Martha” is rather predictable; what is fun is how we get there. Without being handsome, Sergio Castelitto is irresistible as Mario; the difference in style between him and Martha is well demonstrated when he insists on using fingers rather than cutlery when he cooks for her and Lena. Instead of the bedroom athletics that have become de rigueur in recent love scenes, Nettelbeck serves up a delicious sexual tidbit in which Mario asks a blindfolded Martha to guess what she is tasting in each sample of food he offers her, kissing her, of course, between bites.

Although Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira has an international reputation, he’s largely unknown to the U.S. public. At 92, he gives us another chance to catch up, with I’m Going Home, currently playing at art theaters around the country.

“I’m Going Home” deals with an elderly actor’s approach to death, but the film preserves his serene attitude, reflecting an inner awareness of a life of accomplishment and an ongoing enjoyment of the world around him. The film’s central figure, to some extent an alter ego for the director, is Gilberte Valence (Michel Piccoli), who manages to endure tragedy -- his wife, daughter, and son-in-law are killed in an automobile accident -- and a growing awareness of his own approaching end, while maintaining a wide-eyed love for his grandson and the daily round of his Paris neighborhood.

Piccoli is himself a distinguished French actor, and to see him do the concluding scene of Ionesco’s “Exit the King” is enough reason to seek out the movie. In keeping with the playwright’s place in the theater of the absurd, the dying monarch Gilberte portrays is both heartbreaking and ridiculous as he issues more and more extravagant demands for the immortality of fame, while his stage wife (Catherine Deneuve) and court attendants alternately mock and mourn him.

As he leaves the theater, Gilberte gets the news of the terrible accident; de Oliveira avoids all histrionics, and when we next see the actor, he is calmly looking out the window of his Paris home, observing his grandson Serge as he leaves for school. Cinematographer Sabine Lancelin’s magical shots of an illuminated Ferris wheel help the director convey why Gilberte is still entranced with the city around him. We follow the actor walking in his neighborhood, observing the elegant displays in the shops, stopping for a coffee at his favorite café, even buying a fancy pair of new shoes. After a second acting sequence, in which Gilberte delivers Prospero’s valedictory lines from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” he is mugged on a Paris street at night. He is angry but far from overwhelmed. Gilberte turns down an agent’s offer of a role in a squalid (but well-paid) TV drama; the old man’s return to his regular seat in the café becomes an affirmation of life as a human comedy.

Gilberte is made up to look much younger in his final acting stint as Buck Mulligan in a movie version of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” directed by John Malkovich. But his memory falters over the script, and when he realizes he is no longer in command, he walks off the set, announcing, “I’m going home.” This may be the beginning of the end for Gilberte, and perhaps the last film of de Oliveira; if so, it is the bracing adieu of an artist who knows he has gone on offering his gifts -- and enjoying them -- to the very end.

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

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002