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At the Movies

Pain and Healing


Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven is the most critically acclaimed recent U.S. movie but it is not clear if audiences will respond with equal enthusiasm. The woman I saw it with said, “No wife should have to suffer like that.” This would seem to fit in with the director’s intentions since, in addition to recreating the picture-perfect suburban world of the 1950s, Haynes conceded, “I did want to make people cry.” My companion added, however, “I was never really moved.”

“Far from Heaven” is a tribute to ’50s director Douglas Sirk, well known for a stylized mise en scène and a sense of irony. Haynes updates Sirk’s 1956 “All That Heaven Allows,” in which Jane Wyman, a wealthy widow, falls in love with her sensitive gardener (Rock Hudson) and suffers snide disapproval from her social set. Cathy, the new heroine (Julianne Moore), becomes emotionally involved with a thoughtful gardener named Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), a widower who happens to be black. The melodramatic possibilities of the material are further heightened when the wife suddenly discovers that her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is a homosexual.

“Far From Heaven” is set in the upper-class world of 1957, and production designer Mark Frieberg has done a brilliant job of getting all the details accurate and picture-perfect. It’s hard, however, to believe that everyone was as repressed as they are represented in the movie’s hothouse atmosphere. Contemporary audiences are encouraged to feel superior because of the distance traveled since the time of the movie (Eisenhower is sending troops to integrate a Little Rock, Ark., high school), but the exaggerated reactions of neighbors when they see an interracial couple in eager conversation would be more appropriate in farce. Haynes is content to rework old Hollywood formulas without irony, and the empty exchanges between Cathy and Raymond are emotionally heightened by Elmer Bernstein’s overwrought score.

Moore is nevertheless being mentioned as a contender for Oscar honors. Her Cathy certainly projects a credible image of what used to be considered the perfect wife, presiding over an immaculate split-level home -- aided by a black maid, gently controlling her two children, and always handsomely dressed and coiffed. With Frank, successful husband who is sales manager for Magna-tech (a TV manufacturer), she is constantly posing for photos in the local newspaper and appearing at appropriate social functions. Indeed, it is at a local art show that her conversation with Raymond, in which he explains the significance of a painting by Miró, begins to generate public curiosity.

The artificiality of “Far From Heaven” is evident in the thoughtful serenity of Raymond’s manner; he is even given an 11-year-old daughter, who becomes a victim of stone-throwing young white thugs. Raymond finds Cathy in tears after she learns, through a melodramatic scene at Frank’s Magnatech office, that her husband is gay. Later, when Raymond takes her for a drive to give her a chance to relax, they are recognized by one of Cathy’s easily shocked neighbors.

Haynes would have had a stronger movie if he had given equal attention to Frank’s situation; Quaid is merely allowed to scowl and mutter unconvincingly, “We’re going to beat this problem.” But this would have been to let too much reality intrude on the film’s emphasis of pathos and control. Haynes has said that he hoped to make a movie “you could take your grandmother to.” He has certainly employed considerable intelligence to control the shimmering surfaces of “Far From Heaven” in exactly the way he wanted. My gut reaction, however, is: Why bother?

Atom Egoyan’s Ararat is a far more ambitious film, linking the theme of memory with the Armenian genocide of 1915 as narrative. Unfortunately, its extremely complex structure is hard to keep under control; although a thoughtful movie, it is uneven and often confusing.

Egoyan, a Canadian director with an international reputation (“The Sweet Hereafter”), realizes that films distort the reality they pretend to present. Born in Egypt to Armenian parents, he is very aware that Turkey still denies culpability in the slaughter of more than a million Armenians during World War I, but chooses to present the tragedy through the making of a film within his film. There are moments of compelling horror, like the scene in which young women are forced to dance, then doused with kerosene and burned alive, but at other times the camera draws back, abruptly reminding us that everything has been staged for our “entertainment.”

Most of the historical material is based on Clarence Ussher’s 1917 memoir, An American Physician in Turkey, and concerns the siege of the city of Van. But this authenticity is compromised by the commercially motivated decision to invent the story that, as an 11-year old boy, the famous Armenian painter Arshile Gorky, who grew up in the area, was sent by the besieged community to solicit American intervention. Ani (Arsinée Khanjian), an expert on Gorky, was hired by the director of the film-within-the-film (Charles Aznavour) as an adviser, but her real value to “Ararat” is to call attention to the painter’s work, especially his “Portrait of the Artist and His Mother,” completed in the United States in 1936.

Present-day family complications threaten to overwhelm the material because Ani’s son, Raffi (David Alpay), is having an affair with his stepsister, Celia (Marie-Josée Croze), who holds his mother responsible for her father’s murder or suicide. When Raffi, whose own father had been killed while trying to assassinate a Turkish diplomat, is stopped at the airport by a customs officer (Christopher Plummer), the convoluted plotting reaches a climax. Raffi has come back with a video diary of his secret trip to Turkey, but the customs officer understandably suspects that heroin is hidden in the several cans of film the young man is bringing into the country. The scene is too long and talky, but Raffi’s frenzied effort to explain the event that motivated his search ultimately helps to heal the custom officer’s conflict with his own son.

All this is too much to digest in a single viewing, and it is easy to say that “Ararat” ultimately doesn’t “work.” But the movie forces us to reflect on the importance of remembrance, and by the end Gorky’s “Portrait of the Artist and His Mother” has become a healing image for Armenian identity and our own most painful memories.

El Crimen del Padre Amaro deserves attention as the most successful Mexican-made movie in history, and the official Mexican entry for best foreign language film at next spring’s Academy awards. Catholic authorities and government officials lobbied to get it banned, a factor the producers were able to use to sell more tickets. The handsome young star of “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (Gael García Bernal) plays Fr. Amaro, whose most exploitable “crime” is having an affair with Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón), a pretty 16-year-old catechism teacher in Los Reyes, the rural village to which he is assigned.

“Padre Amaro” was updated from a novel by the highly esteemed 19th century Portuguese novelist, José Maria Eça de Queiróz. The novel may well be subtler than the movie, which is forthright in maintaining that the church is repressive and the clergy have a soft life. The one exception is Fr. Natalio (Damián Alcázar), who serves in a remote mountainous area and talks to his fellow priests about liberation theology. Fr. Amaro seems to admire Fr. Natalio, but as a favorite of the bishop who is grooming him for clerical advancement, has no intention of imitating him.

The pastor of Los Reyes, Fr. Benito -- himself involved in a longtime affair with his housekeeper, Sanjuanera (Angélica Aragón), Amelia’s mother -- accepts cash from a local drug lord to build a hospital in the area. But the film’s strongest contempt is directed at the self-satisfied bishop (Ernesto Gómez Cruz), who instructs Fr. Amaro to pass on a note to Fr. Natalio informing him that he has been excommunicated.

At a clergy meeting Fr. Amaro speaks in favor of making clerical celibacy optional, but the pastor dismisses the suggestion as far-fetched: “It’s easier to think of making a Mexican pope than of abandoning celibacy.”

One can understand why Mexican audiences would find the line hilarious, but hard to sympathize with Fr. Amaro’s careful planning of his tryst with Amelia in a shack inhabited by the mentally handicapped daughter of one of Fr. Benito’s assistants. The love scene is even accompanied by recitation of appropriate lines from the Song of Songs, and later Fr. Amaro expresses his devotion by dressing Amelia in the blue satin cloak of the Blessed Virgin.

Director Carlos Carrera may have been hoping to compete with the late Juan Luis Buñuel by including such bizarre details as having an old crone steal Communion wafers to feed them to her cat, but Buñuel’s anti-clericalism, as in “Nazarin,” is more powerful and complex, and expressed in esthetic terms. “Padre Amaro” has little real connection with the present sexual scandal in the church, but may please some viewers by its reminders of the misuse of clerical power. It would be a stronger movie, however, if its central character were more complex, and his fall from grace seen as the surrender of a genuine ideal.

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

National Catholic Reporter, November 29, 2002