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Issue Date:  May 13, 2005

Conflict across the centuries


Kingdom of Heaven is an ambitious movie, repeating the epic sweep of Ridley Scott’s Academy Award-winning “Gladiator” while striving to make the Crusades an adventure for a religiously plural world. An outsider may wonder whether this is an appropriate moment to remind audiences of the bloody divisions of the 12th century, but its producers are careful to minimize the greed of the Crusaders and give Saladin the dignity with which he is remembered in Islamic culture. Battle scenes are stirring, 12th-century Jerusalem is recreated in striking detail and after Saladin’s forces break through its walls, he allows the city’s inhabitants to depart in safety.

The movie starts in a rush. Balian (Orlando Bloom), a French blacksmith, is in despair, his wife having committed suicide after the death of her child. Seeing a man who has stolen the cross his wife had always worn, Balian murders him impulsively. A stirring scene follows in which Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a Crusader who has returned to France, identifies himself as Balian’s father and invites the young man to accompany him to Jerusalem. At first Balian refuses, but finally decides he can find forgiveness only in the Holy City.

Godfrey is mortally injured on the journey; his last act is to knight his son while passing on the mission of keeping the peace in Jerusalem. Balian shows courage and resourcefulness in defending the city, but his romance with Sibylla (Eva Green), a princess caught in an arranged marriage, seems a movie cliché. Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) is adviser to the leprous King Baldwin (Edward Norton). The problem for Tiberias is keeping Jerusalem open to pilgrims while Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) threatens the city with 200,000 troops.

Filmed in Spain and Morocco, “Kingdom of Heaven” is a battle film about the need for peace. With convincing sets, costumes and scenery as well as good acting, it emphasizes Godfrey’s ideal: “Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong.” Helping us rethink our attitude to the Crusades, it should appeal to all but the youngest children.

The Interpreter is an exciting but overly convoluted thriller that makes brilliant photographic use of the U.N. building. Director Sydney Pollack’s stunning opening scene focuses on glistening telephone wires against a distinctly African landscape and leads up to the discovery of a grisly massacre. The action shifts to the United Nations, where translator Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), returning to pick up some African flutes from her office, overhears an assassination threat made against Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), the homicidal president of the fictional African country of Matobo. The murder is to be carried out in a week, when he comes to address the General Assembly.

Silvia’s report of this threat brings her to the attention of Secret Service Agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), who thinks she is either hysterical or lying. He discovers an old photograph of Silvia in combat fatigues, indicating that she fought in Matobo’s struggle for liberation, but later finds evidence that she turned against the regime because of its violence against the people (including her own family). Though Mr. Penn is given his own backstory of grief -- his wife was killed just a few weeks earlier -- the movie doesn’t collapse into a romance between its high-powered stars. Instead, the key scenes between them are tense with revelation as Silvia explains how the Ku tribe achieves a nonviolent “vengeance.” Tobin reminds her of this lesson at the exciting climax.

Despite its many improbabilities, “The Interpreter” recalls the career of Robert Mugabe and the recent history of Zimbabwe. Its basic weakness is that it needs sharper editing; the plot is confusing and the many characters are hard to follow. Mr. Pollack wants to compete with Hitchcock, but that master of suspense always kept his plot lines clean even as he piled on the thrills.

Though Mr. Penn has little to do but look sad and worried, you’ll feel the tension when Ms. Kidman’s apartment comes under siege or she rides her motor scooter in Manhattan traffic or, stalked by a suicide bomber, she goes to interview the Matobo opposition leader. Though a capable actress, Ms. Kidman is too Hollywood-pretty to turn the movie into anything more than well-made entertainment.

Despite its many improbabilities, “The Interpreter” is a superior thriller with marvelous cinematography by Darius Khondji. It reminded me, however, of my annoyance at Mr. Pollack’s colonialist “Out of Africa.” How can one justify making a movie about the betrayed hopes of poor black Africans and choose a beautiful white woman as its heroine?

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

Quick Takes
Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room is a valuable documentary directed by Alex Gibney, based on the book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. You probably don’t need help to feel outrage at the duplicity of executives Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey K. Schilling, but it may be restorative to laugh at their smugness and be reminded how close Mr. Lay was to the Bush family. Mr. Gibney makes good use of interviews and video clips, including those from Congressional hearings, but non-MBAs like myself would have liked a basic explanation of how energy is marketed in the United States and why it’s not a publicly owned resource. Michael Moore would have gotten more laughs out of the situation, but even Texas oilmen should find Mr. Gibney convincing.

National Catholic Reporter, May 13, 2005

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