Issue Date: March 4, 2005
'Hitch' is a humorous take on dating; 'Head-On' looks at the desperate lives of Turkish immigrants; 'My Mother's Smile' lampoons canonizations
By JOSEPH CUNNEEN
Hitch is hardly a great movie but is far more successful as romantic comedy than recent trendier Hollywood products that aim at the same audience. Of course, nothing in it is to be taken seriously, but its hard not to enjoy the ingratiating self-confidence of its title character, Alex Hitch Hitchens (Will Smith), who passes out psychological and sartorial advice to a seeming loser like Albert (Kevin James). The latter lacks the good looks and poise with which to approach the wealthy and glamorous Allegra (Amber Valletta) but is willing to try his coachs advice. Predictably, Hitch will be forced to abandon his smugness when he meets Sara (Eva Mendes), a successful gossip columnist he begins to court while concealing his role as a date consultant.
The central joke of the movie derives from Hitchs glib recitation of practical bits of advice, which Mr. Smith announces with fine farcical smugness, and Mr. James equal skill at communicating shyness, spilling things on his clothes and taking pratfalls. We enjoy knowing that Hitch will get his comeuppance but wish him well because he has quickly made it clear that he wont take on clients who are merely philanderers -- love is clearly a matter of deep feeling. Similarly, no matter how awkward his efforts, Albert will win the woman of his dreams because he is so sincere!
Plot development is less important than simply following its main characters to trendy spots in Lower Manhattan, to the Fulton Fish Market and even to Ellis Island. Sara, at first uninterested in romantic involvement, is outraged when she discovers what kind of consultant work Hitch is doing, believing it shows lack of respect for women. (No moral questions, of course, are raised about gossip columns.) Though obvious, the exchanges between Hitch and Albert are especially successful; the instructor even offers his own face when giving his bumbling client detailed instructions on how to bestow a goodnight kiss.
In contrast, Head-On is a powerful film about two emotionally desperate Turkish immigrants in Hamburg, Germany, both driven to extremes by what they feel are hopeless situations. Fatih Akin, its director and writer, himself the son of Turkish guest workers, gets powerful performances from his central figures, Cahit (Birol Ünel) and Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), who are as dramatically arresting as they are out of control. Their story is formally punctuated by four segments of a melancholy romantic ballad, performed along the sea by a female soloist and backed up by six traditional Turkish male musicians.
Cahit and Sibel meet in a mental hospital after both have tried to commit suicide. A compulsive drinker and drug user, Cahit has deliberately driven his car into a wall; his emotional collapse is apparently due to the death of his wife. Sibel, a slim young woman with a long nose and a haunting smile, was so desperate to break free of the Islamic restrictions of her fathers home that she slit her wrists. The actors convey the wasted strength of their respective characters, and we seem to enter the world of black comedy when Sibel asks this wreck of a man to marry her in order to escape her home. Brief shots then convey the squalor of Cahits quarters, where she proposes to sleep in a separate bed, cook his meals and establish minimal order. After initial reluctance, Cahit allows her to cut his hair and to be made sufficiently presentable to pay a call on Sibels family during which her brother sneers at his mistakes in Turkish but her father consents to their marriage.
After the traditional wedding party, Sibel makes the mistake of asking about Cahits wife and is thrown out of the house. Despite Sibels vivacious charm, her compulsive personality fails to dissolve her husbands cold indifference. When a bully in a bar brutally insults her, however, Cahits own emotional demons produce a fatal explosion. The action soon shifts to Istanbul; though Cahit speaks of seeking out his native village, Mr. Akin rejects a happy ending, leaving us with a melancholy sense of longing.
Played out against an insistent rock beat, Head-On makes the contemporary mistake of confusing realism with explicit sex and incessant profanity. It nevertheless includes humor and even some signs of hope, deepening our sense of compassion by uncovering the complexity of its central figures.
My Mothers Smile was popular in Italy largely because it lampoons both the business of canonizations and an Italian sons reverence for his mother. Marco Bellocchios new movie centers on Ernesto (Sergio Castellitto), an impassioned atheist, who is suddenly informed that his mother, whom he never respected, is a serious candidate for sainthood. It seems that she forgave her assailant before dying and there are now claims of miracles performed through her intercession.
Ernesto, a serious artist, is already upset that Irene, his estranged wife (Jacqueline Lustig), has enrolled their son, Leonardo (Alberto Mondini), in a religion class in his public school. When conversation with his son uncovers the boys confusion regarding what he has been told about God, Ernesto decides to talk to the religion teacher. Expecting to meet an unattractive prude, he is startled to find himself talking to a luscious blonde (Chiara Conti) who would like him to look at her drawings. Summoned to appear before the papal consultant on canonizations, he tries to remain calm but testifies that his mother was stupid.
Mr. Bellocchio wants to make Ernestos atheism challenging but never makes clear the difference between histrionic piety and genuine holiness. He is more successful in showing the continuing importance of Vatican influence, even in an Italy where church attendance is low. Irene, for example, suggests it would be immensely useful for her son to have a saint for a grandmother.
Unfortunately, the lush music of Riccardo Giagni, Ernestos sudden passion for the mysterious religion teacher and his duel with a nobleman who wants to bring back the monarchy all contribute to a sense of excess. Although Mr. Bellocchio starts with a fine comic premise, the figure of the mother remains evasive, and we arent helped by Ernestos sudden admission that his own indifferent smile is a repetition of hers.
Joseph Cunneen is NCRs regular film reviewer. His e-mail address is Scunn24219@aol.com.
National Catholic Reporter, March 4, 2005
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