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At the Movies

Beyond control


Real Women Have Curves, an unpretentious first film from director Patricia Cardoso, is a comedy-drama that throws a sympathetic light on the Latin experience in the United States. This is an especially welcome contribution because American movies have largely ignored Hispanic-American life or treated it in sensationalistic terms. Cardoso doesn’t break new stylistic ground, but mixes broad humor with a presentation of the strong emotional ties within a Mexican-American family living in the Los Angeles area. Its women characters are especially well drawn, and there are realistic reminders of the backbreaking work performed by first generation Americans without advanced education.

Though Guadalupe and other religious images are prominent in the home, faith does not seem to have much impact on day-to-day family life. The central conflict in “Curves” is between Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros) and her chubby younger daughter Ana (America Ferrera). The mother insists that the teenager, an honor student in high school, go to work ironing dresses in a small Los Angeles shop run by her older daughter, Estela (Ingrid Oliu).

Though she calls Ana “Butterball,” Carmen is not without affection for the girl; it’s just that she had to go to work when she was 13 and now it’s her daughter’s turn. But Ana is rebellious; her high school English teacher has encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to Columbia University, and she correctly dismisses Estela’s operation as a sweatshop, doing the dirty work for a large dress distributor.

Carmen is bossy and often ignorant, but “Curves” is more interested in the comic aspects of her tirades than in making her a villain. Similarly, though we’re sympathetic with Ana, she is seen as going through a prickly stage, her sweet side emerging principally with her hardworking father and kindly grandfather. When Ana’s vague ambitions for college are opposed by her mother because they would mean the break-up of the family, it’s easy to see how she gets involved in a shy relationship with an Anglo boy at Beverly Hills high school after he tells her she is beautiful.

This romance is the weakest aspect of the movie; the boy is a cardboard figure and the exchanges between him and Ana seem thin and charmless. Scriptwriters George La Voo and Josefina Lopez muffed a chance by not using those scenes to have Ana think out --and perhaps read from -- the personal essay she’s supposed to be writing for her application to Columbia.

The movie’s producers are aiming their advertising at the audience that made “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” such a surprise hit, but “Curves” isn’t as funny. Its most farcical scene takes place in Estela’s sweatshop where the small crew of women workers is struggling to finish a large order on time. Oppressed by the heat, Ana takes off her dress; though Carmen protests this indelicacy, it becomes the occasion for all the women, including Estela, to do the same, and to announce a glad acceptance of their imperfect bodies.

Though slight, “All Women Have Curves” is a movie with an inner core of authenticity. Ontiveros is marvelous as the mother, imperious even in her partial ignorance. Ferrera’s Ana, a believably bright, not-too-beautiful girl, conveys the aggressiveness and insecurity that accompanies growing up.

Writer-director Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday presents the British violence against the 1972 Derry civil-rights marchers with such documentary-like immediacy that it’s hard not to flinch. The conflict is established at the outset: “In view of the adverse security situation in the province, all parades, processions and marches will be banned until further notice,” insists the grimly, relentless British Maj. Gen. Robert Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith). His adversary is Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), the pacifist Protestant member of Parliament in this Irish-Catholic district, is equally determined that the planned civil rights march should take place.

Greengrass makes it clear from the start that the march will be a disaster, cutting back and forth between the British commanders, with their well-armed troops and tanks, and the spirited but unarmed civil rights forces bursting with energy and hope. The use of a hand-held camera is disorienting, and the constant quick blackouts mean that “Bloody Sunday” doesn’t even try to provide background on its main characters. We see them on the run, and only get a brief reminder that Cooper would be glad to have a quiet life with the beautiful and dedicated supporter who presumably is his wife. Because the dialogue is reduced to quick bits and is delivered with heavy accents, it’s easy, too, to miss the fact that Gerry Donaghy (Declan Duddy), a teenager involved with a young Protestant girl, has an arrest record for rioting.

But these are not Greengrass’s concerns. Instead, he overwhelms with the confusion of the day, and a sense of direct involvement in events beyond our control. What is amazing is that the director could recreate such life-like scenes with a large group of performers without giving us the sense that they are acting. The inevitability of the massacre is delayed by a British officer’s uneasiness with the order of the major general, but the coordination of tactics is regularly checked against a map as the marchers proceed through the streets of Derry. Cooper, for his part, rushes around, trying to keep his more unruly supporters under control, while waiting British paratroopers dismiss their unarmed opponents as hooligans.

Inevitably, the movie’s sympathies are with the 15,000 marchers; their exuberant singing of “We Shall Overcome” is especially moving because their fate is all too clear. The sequence in which British paramilitary fire point-blank into a fleeing crowd -- 13 were killed, 14 wounded -- has made some critics think of a similar scene in Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin.” At the hospital when relatives and friends are searching for their loved ones, military control is equally inhuman.

In the aftermath a dispirited Cooper declares, “You will reap a whirlwind,” and we see Derry’s young men now accepting the guns of the IRA. “Bloody Sunday” drives home its message by showing the Brits planting evidence that their troops were fired on first, and reminding us that the commanding officers at Derry have since been honored by the queen.

I wanted to see Tom Tykwer’s Heaven because it was based on a scenario by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski (and his regular screenwriting collaborator, Krzysztof Piesiewicz), who were responsible for “The Decalogue,” the most important work for the cinema in the past generation. “Decalogue,” was originally shown on Polish TV in the late 1980s, is a series of 10 one-hour films set in a Warsaw housing project and loosely based on the Ten Commandments; “Heaven” was to inaugurate a new trilogy named for the “Divine Comedy.”

It’s impossible to know to what degree Tykrer departed from the scenario; since Piesiewicz approved the result, changes must not have been grievous. The result is an intriguing film with Kieslowski’s feel for what he called “blind fate,” but it lacks the moral passion and sense of transcendence that permeate “The Decalogue.”

“Heaven” centers on the psychological recovery of Philippa (Cate Blanchett), a recently widowed English teacher living in Turin. At the outset, she is a dedicated terrorist who plants a time bomb in the wastebasket outside the office of Vendice (Stefano Santospago), an executive who is really a high-level drug dealer. She even calls the office, giving the secretary a pretext for leaving before the bomb explodes, but cannot foreclose the possibilities of chance. A cleaning woman, after emptying the office trash, shares the elevator with a man and two daughters who have just arrived at the building, and four innocent people are killed.

When Philippa learns what has happened, she is overwhelmed, and Blanchett’s series of emotional responses, finally falling down unconscious, is a tour de force of acting. The police treat Philippa as part of a terrorist gang, but she insists that she had written them many letters without response about Vendice’s drug activities, which had resulted in the death of young students in the school where she teaches. A major weakness in the scenario is that it assumes the near-total corruption of the Turin police department, who even destroy the copies Philippa kept of her letters. The story takes a more interesting turn as Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi) a dreamy police translator who seems younger than the teacher-terrorist, becomes shyly enamored of her. With the help of his younger brother, one of Philippa’s students, he devises a complex plot, leaving smuggled notes in the prisoner’s bathroom. The two hide out in the unused attic of police headquarters; eventually they manage to leave the building and escape to the countryside.

Blanchett seems to grow increasingly ethereal, and Ribisi’s look of innocent adoration is convincing, but it’s hard to associate heaven with a heroine who refuses to leave the police attic until she has avenged herself on Vendice. The movie remains compelling, however, because Twyker advertises its non-realistic framework at the start with a scene in a helicopter flight simulator. This prepares the way for a series of overhead shots found throughout the film, as well as for our romanticized awe as Philippa and Filippo travel by train through Tuscany across a timeless landscape.

Joseph Cunneen is the regular movie reviewer for NCR. Readers wanting a free copy of his article on Kieslowski’s “Decalogue” should contact him by e-mail at SCUNN24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002