National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
At the Movies
Issue Date:  June 4, 2004

Foreign adventure is the theme of 'Troy' and 'Since Otar Left'


The producers of Troy refer to their movie as “inspired by Homer,” a gentle way of conceding that The Iliad is most unlikely material for a summer blockbuster. They would have come closer to the spirit of the original if they had followed the example of “Chunhyang,” in which Im Kwon-taek presented a Korean epic by alternating scenes of formal recitation with staged action. In “Troy,” Wolfgang Petersen, with the help of a script by David Benioff, has streamlined his source and included some moving brief scenes along with the inevitable extended battles. Although the dialogue is often banal and Brad Pitt’s Achilles is more a rock star with an undraped bottom than a rounded character, the overall effect does capture something of the flawed nobility celebrated in the Greek epic.

Benioff and Petersen, unlike Homer, begin before Paris (Orlando Bloom) runs off with Helen (Diane Kruger) and conclude with the fall of Troy and the death of Achilles -- all in 140 minutes. It is easy to see why Helen might prefer her boyish lover to her older husband, Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), but the battle scenes are far more compelling than the callow love story. The movie also makes clear that the real motive for the war is not to avenge the insult to Menelaus; Agamemnon (Brian Cox) uses the situation as a pretext to take over the eastern Aegean and bring the Greeks together under his command. In contrast to Homer, the influence of the gods is far less important here than power politics. Achilles is seen casually lopping off the head of a statue of Apollo. But Agamemnon needs Achilles, who sulks in his tent with his mistress Briseis (Rose Byrne) until Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund) is killed. “Troy” fails to explain why this death so enrages Achilles, since Patroclus is presented simply as his cousin.

There are fine quiet moments when the gallant Hector (Eric Bana) folds his wife Andromache (Saffron Burrows) and their baby in his arms, or between King Priam (Peter O’Toole) and Achilles, when the former calls for respect for the dead after the climactic fight between the latter and Priam’s son Hector. That fight is genuinely stirring, a convincing demonstration of Pitt’s slashing style of combat, but the movie wastes too much time having its heroes announce that their exploits will be celebrated for centuries. In contrast to the impressive funeral ceremonies for fallen warriors, the endless wailing of James Horner’s music quickly becomes oppressive.

“Troy” is less bloody than “The Passion of the Christ” but works with the assumption that war is always accompanied by a casual attitude toward sex. As with Homer’s epic, the film’s story is no simple-minded contrast between good and evil; there is nobility and viciousness on both sides. The battle scenes themselves are both exciting and visually impressive, with Troy’s archers sending down arrow after arrow from their high walls as the Greeks continue to hurl themselves at their enemy. It is only through the ruse of pretending to sail away, leaving the statue of a gigantic horse behind as an apparent gift, that they manage to break through the walls of the city.

Since the movie dramatizes the pointlessness of war -- Achilles makes it clear he is fighting only for his own glory -- one wonders what audiences will make of possible parallels between Troy and Baghdad. Both the making of the movie and Bush’s preemptive war represent a fantastic waste of resources; the nobility that the film wants to celebrate on both sides will be harder to appreciate because of the gruesome realities that have been uncovered in Iraq.

Since Otar Left is a subtle French film, set in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, about three generations of women living together in the depressed city of Tbilisi: Otar’s mother, Eka (Esther Gorintin), his sister Marina (Nino Khomasuridze), and Marina’s daughter, Ada (Dinara Drukarova). Director Julie Bertuccelli gives us time to get to know her characters. She shows real sympathy for all three women while being able to look with a degree of humor on their angularities. As for Otar, the title figure, his is a presence that is almost never seen. A medical student who has fled his country, he is now a poorly paid construction worker without a visa in Paris. The family had once been comfortably middle-class, and the mother, proud of owning editions of the French classics, speaks French whenever possible. Now she seems to live exclusively for Otar’s occasional letters and phone calls.

Her obvious favoritism creates some resentment in her daughter, which is exaggerated by Eka’s insistence that Ada read Otar’s letters to her, but the film also shows the affection that, along with irritation, exists among the three women. In their cramped apartment, Marina and Ada have to share a bed; Marina has a lover, Tengiz (Temur Kalandadze), but refuses to live with him, saying he is a boring conversationalist. Ada is a serious student who yearns to leave Tbilisi; her silly boyfriend can only offer fantasies of Western wealth. Out of the blue, Marina and Ada learn that Otar has been killed in an accident at work but find that they are unable to break the news to Eka.

Ada is close to tears as she reads letters she herself has composed, imitating Otar’s handwriting, to her grandmother. Neither she nor Marina knows how to interrupt this charade, and the climax is reached only when Eka, in the absence of phone calls from Otar, becomes so anxious to see her beloved son that she sells her valuable French editions and buys three round-trip tickets to Paris. Since the wonderful actress playing Eka is almost 90 and avoids easy sentimentality by emphasizing the bossiness of her character, the movie’s ending becomes an amazing combination of determination, humor and courage. When, after hobbling around the foreign city in search of her son, Eka tells her daughter and granddaughter, “Now I want to see Paris,” it’s hard to resist cheering her indomitable spirit.

Joseph Cunneen is regular movie reviewer for NCR. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 2004

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