National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
At the Movies
Issue Date:  July 2, 2004

Magic and mystery

'Weeping Camel' more wondrous that 'Harry Potter'; 'Father and Son' disappoints


You don’t need critics to decide to see Harry Potter movies; even though the series no longer has novelty appeal, it has a ready following. The new director, Alfonso Cuarón (“A Little Princess,” “Y Tu Mamá También”), who has replaced Chris Columbus for the making of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, has made the scenery surrounding Hogwarts look more enchanted and sinister. Magical special effects never stop coming. The movie seemed scary for those under 10, and with people and objects constantly changing into something else the action is hard to follow.

Daniel Radcliffe is back as Harry, with Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as his now-adolescent sidekicks, Ron and Hermione. The movie’s opening, reminding us of how unfairly the orphaned Harry is treated at home, seems exaggerated, but once he gets away and finds a bus that can collapse in order to knife its way through traffic, things pick up. Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) calls Hermione a know-it-all, but we like her anyway when she flattens Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) with a solid punch to his nose.

The action takes place more outside the school than within, although Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) has a key role as Harry’s instructor in magic. The main threat is first perceived to be Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the escaped prisoner of Azkaban, but Harry’s wizardry is mostly tested on scary creatures called dementors. The story leads him to learn a little more about his parents while leaving enough unresolved secrets to call for several sequels.

For those who are not aficionados, the movie will seem long. I thought we’d come to an ending at least twice before it arrived. Cuarón seems a more imaginative director than his predecessor Columbus, and some special effects make you want to applaud, but when everything is presented as magic, nothing seems very magical.

You will do a lot more to deepen young people’s sense of wonder (as well as your own) by taking them to The Story of the Weeping Camel, a simple, near-documentary movie presenting the tradition-shaped lives of shepherds in Mongolia. Directors Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni convey a sense that you’re actually living in a yurt, a circular, domed tent used by nomads, with a three-generation community. It’s hard not to be caught up in the family’s dedication to the animals on which their livelihood depends and impressed by their naturalness and patient good humor in front of the camera.

The skies are spectacular but the sandstorms are oppressive. The moviemakers, who were inspired by the classic documentaries of Robert Flaherty, work with an awareness that the way of life they are recording is slowly disappearing. The movie follows the community as it lives through the entire birthing season of the camels, and the arrival of the last calf, white and handsome, is observed naturalistically, a non-sentimental miracle of nature. Perhaps because the birth was so difficult for the mother, she initially rejects her offspring, and the forlorn, gangly young calf is given emergency care by its human masters.

The movie is presented as a story told by the grandfather. Within the film he begins another tale for the children, only to be chided for using one that he had told before. Later a grandson, Dude, is sent to the district center to get some batteries, and his mischievous younger brother, Ugna, is allowed to ride off with him. Their more significant mission is to summon a musician needed for a ritual ceremony aimed at reconciling the mother camel and her colt.

The boys’ trip dramatizes the way in which modern society is encroaching on traditional cultures: The children pass through open markets and are entranced by TV cartoons and video games. After they return, however, the community comes together for its strangely moving ritual, which succeeds in reconciling mother and foal. We have one more magnificent shot of camel eyes: The mother is crying.

Father and Son is a major disappointment. Director Alexander Sokurov, a disciple of Tarkovsky, aroused high expectations with “Russian Ark” (2001), which was made up of the longest uninterrupted single shot in movie history. In 1998, he received the International Vatican Prize “for the development of humanistic ideas in cinematic art.” The new work is a follow-up to “Mother and Son” (1997), a painful but luminous film in which a dedicated son cares for his dying mother. In comparison, “Father and Son” is excessively hermetic, drawing on personal memories to project a complex and intense relationship whose meaning the audience can only guess at.

In the film father and son are living together while the latter serves with a military regiment. Their passionate bond is threatened by the son’s growing involvement with the outside world, and the father recognizes he should move away and remarry -- his beloved wife has long been dead. The father wants to be everything to the young man, who seems closely to resemble his late mother, but the old man’s love is also an impossible burden to the son, who repeats, “A father’s love crucifies. A loving son lets himself be crucified.”

Sokurov’s work is largely irrelevant to specific time and place. But he makes brilliantly impressionistic use of the rooftops of Lisbon (where the movie was shot) and dramatizes the strong sense that father and son are inevitably rivals as well as friends. Sokurov hopes to complete his trilogy with “Two Brothers and a Sister.” One can only hope that his transcendental style will be in the service of a film more available to those who admire his search for spiritual expression.

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

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 2004

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