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Issue Date:  April 1, 2005

Slices of life abroad

'Gunner Palace,' 'Millions' and 'Intimate stories' are three films worth seeing


Gunner Palace has attracted wide attention as a digital-video documentary about the day-to-day lives of some U.S. troops in Iraq. Directed by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, its title refers to a half-destroyed pleasure dome once the property of one of Saddam Hussein’s sons, now the barracks for the Army’s 2/3 Field Artillery Division (the Gunners). Mr. Tucker was embedded in the unit during late 2003 and early 2004; his choppy film, though hard on your eyes, captures much of the chaos in Baghdad during “minor combat” after the war was officially over.

Probably the best thing about “Gunner Palace” is that it does not impose a point of view on the war. Sympathetic with the soldiers, it allows them to display a dark sense of humor and perform their rap poetry. It also dramatizes their confusion when they go out into homes -- where families look similarly confused -- looking for enemy holdouts, who will probably end up in Abu Ghraib. We hear smug assurances of progress from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; more instructive are reminders of U.S. pop culture, uncertain relations between soldiers and their Iraqi interpreters, the instinctive kindness of GIs to children and the bravado that covers up a desperate hope to stay alive.

The raw quality of the film’s disconnected fragments is partly concealed by a sophisticated use of background music, from Wagner to Pete Seeger singing “Home on the Range.” If it comes to no conclusion, “Gunner Palace” succeeds in conveying a sense of the chaotic days of ordinary soldiers, best summarized in Specialist Richmond Shaw’s rap poetry: “When those guns start blazing and our friends get hit/ That’s when our hearts start racing and our stomachs get woozy;/’Cuz for y’all this is just a show but we live in this movie.”

In contrast, Millions is a charming new film in which a little boy receives sudden visits from saints. Suspicious on first hearing of it, I attended a preview where an audience of children and their parents broke into applause at the end. Directed by England’s Danny Boyle, known for his tough, cynical “Trainspotting,” the movie works because a magical 7-year-old, Alex Etel, has the central role of Damian Cunningham. The boy, who has recently lost his mother, is playing in his cardboard hideout when it collapses under the weight of a duffel bag thrown from a passing train. The bag holds more than 200,000 English pounds; the startled Damian, guided by Francis of Assisi, believes it should be used to help others.

Mr. Boyle isn’t trying to make apparitions literal; what he shows, with humor rather than sanctimony, is pure selflessness, a radiant purity of gaze. Damian is all the more effective because he is played off against his older brother, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), who spends the money on himself and getting other boys to act as his servants. He even coaches his younger brother to get extra cookies by telling people they’ve just lost their mother, but Damian prefers to buy pizza for the homeless and stuff cash through his neighbors’ mail slots.

People looking for realism may complain that the brothers never tell their father about their discovery and that too much depends on the money being spent quickly since it will be worthless in a few days when England changes over to the euro (in fact, the UK voted against it). It hardly matters since the movie always preserves a sense of wonder. When, early on, the boys move into a new home, the house goes up like magic; later, Damian’s huge contribution to a collection for poor children leads to its woman organizer becoming romantically involved with his father.

More troubling is that the second half of the movie depends on “the bad guy” threatening the family, even wrecking their house in a search for the money. Since the film conveys such a sense of generosity and inclusiveness, it’s disappointing that there’s no way to include the robber. “Millions” is a delight, but would Francis have considered the thief simply a problem for the police?

Intimate Stories (originally distributed in English as “Minimal Stories”) is the best movie so far this year. Because it’s from Argentina and avoids all pretension, it may not find the audience it deserves. Director Carlos Sorin shows humor and a deep sense of humanity as he weaves together the stories of three people who travel 200 miles through the plains of Patagonia; their journeys are learning experiences for us as well as themselves.

Don Justo (Antonio Benedictis), a half-blind old man, sits in front of his family’s grocery store, reassuring himself by wiggling his ears. Told that his dog Badface, who ran away three years ago, has been spotted in San Julian, he totters out into the magnificence of dawn to begin his adventure. People are kind to him on the road, but wherever he stops he insists that if his son calls, he is not there. María (Javiera Bravo), a single mother, learns that she has been selected to appear on a game show by a TV station in San Julian. Extremely shy, she needs her friends to convince her to make the trip. Roberto (Javier Lombardo) is a traveling salesman with a confident patter about slimming plasters; his mission in San Julian is to deliver a birthday cake to the son of a young widow who has become more than a client.

The fraternity these pilgrims encounter on the road helps rescue them from errors of judgment. Don Justo finds hospitality, guitar music and a dog in San Julian. The kitchen appliance María wins on the tacky TV show requires electricity her home does not have, but after another contestant buys it, she and her child are able to have a treat. As for Roberto, he goes from one baker to the next with the birthday cake, originally made to suggest a soccer ball. Suddenly realizing he doesn’t know if the cake is for a boy or a girl, he shows resilience by improvising a compromise solution.

Mr. Sorin respects his characters, emphasizing close-ups in which their faces fill the whole screen. We laugh at their foibles but sympathize with their goals. Don Justo, for example, wants to know if dogs know the difference between right and wrong. The question may seem farcical, but “Intimate Stories” is as deeply ethical as it is compassionate.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular film reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 1, 2005

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