Movie Reviews - 2009 postsThursday July 02, 2009
Review: “Public Enemies” (2009)
WARNING: PUBLIC SPOILERS
So to the obvious question: Was Michael Mann initially interested in John Dillinger because he’s a typical Mann anti-hero, or did Mann turn the historic Dillinger into a typical Mann anti-hero?
In the film’s first scene, for example, we see Dillinger (Johnny Depp) entering prison in handcuffs. Turns out he’s not being led in; he’s breaking other guys, including gang boss Walter Dietrich (James Russo), out. Mid-break, though, one gangmember gets a little too rifle-butt happy on a guard, and shots are fired alerting the other guards in the towers. Before it’s all over, Dietrich is shot, dragged by the escape car, and finally succumbs and dies. Dillinger ain’t happy. The hood that got rifle-butt happy? He doesn’t last a mile from prison. Dillinger punches his face in and kicks him out the door. The dude is basically the Waingro of the movie: The unprofessional one who alerts us to the professionalism of the others. It’s a constant Mann theme.
Depp’s Dillinger is also, like most Mann heroes, a man of few words; a man who focuses on the essential. After meeting hat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) at a dinner club, we get this non sequitur:
Billie: How come you don’t know how to dance?
Dillinger: Frechette. That French?
Unfortunately, there’s also this. At a fancy restaurant, Billie feels awkward in her three-dollar dress and Dillinger looks around at the customers:
Dillinger: They’re all about where people come from. I only care about where they’re going.
Billie: Where are you going?
Dillinger: Anywhere I want.
In the theater I blanched at this conversation but in retrospect it works. Dillinger is at a high point here. He busts guys out of prison. He robs banks at will. Top of the world, ma. But tectonic plates are shifting around him. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) is accruing power as the head of the FBI and places Melvin Pervis (Christian Bale), the man who killed Pretty Boy Floyd, at the head of a Dillinger task force in Chicago. Meanwhile, Dillinger’s sometime-ally, Al Capone’s former gang, now the National Crime Syndicate under Frank Nitti, is going corporate. They’re making money hand-over-fist, coast-to-coast, through wire-service gambling, and since they’ve paid off the cops to leave them alone, the last thing they need is the sensational bank-robbing antics of men like Dillinger attracting attention and possibly shining a spotlight on them. They make Dillinger an offer but he refuses and they cut all ties with him. Safe houses are closed off. Friends turn. This is the movie at its most intriguing. Dillinger isn’t simply a crook pursued by cops. He’s a man being squeezed by two corporate forces. He’s the last individual standing. And in this new world he finds he can’t go anywhere he wants.
The casting is intriguing. Depp, Bale and Crudup could play brothers they look so much alike. Dillinger and Purvis, in particular, are both professional men heading outfits that aren’t always professional or competent. They’re both guys doing jobs, but Dillinger is having more fun with his. Purvis, one feels, begins to lose his soul in the process. He places corporate results ahead of moral methods. He tortures out information. He’s basically us this decade. Crudup, meanwhile, still handsome, somehow suggests the fleshiness Hoover will grow into.
Depp is a revelation. I didn’t think he could do gangster but there’s always something hard and immovable in his eyes. Dillinger was supposedly one of the more graceful of bank robbers, and Depp demonstrates it, vaulting beautifully over a bank counter, machine gun in hand. I could watch “Public Enemies” again just for the dreamy, eerie scene where Dillinger is extradited back to Indiana. It feels like a mirage to me. I want to grasp at its meaning but it eludes me. Maybe its beauty is its meaning; maybe it wasn’t meant to be grasped.
Did Mann miss an opportunity by avoiding a tri-part structure and relegating Purvis and Hoover to secondary status? Is there too much a focus on Dillinger? Aspects of his story bored me. The romance. He meets her, wants her, gets her; then, of course, she worries he’ll be killed. “Dillinger: Wanted dead or dead,” one gangmember jokes, but it’s not a joke to her and she complains. But it’s a boring complaint, one we’ve heard in too many movies. It’s only in the second half of the film, when the FBI is watching her, bugging her phone using primitive phonograph technology, that this relationship becomes interesting. It’s even better when she’s caught and tortured for information. Cotillard is outstanding in these scenes.
Once Dillinger is squeezed by both the FBI and the Syndicate, he’s forced into partnership with less professional men like Baby Face Nelson, who promises big hauls and doesn’t deliver, kills unnecessarily and draws unwanted attention. The FBI closes in. More gangmembers go down. Eventually Dillinger is as alone as Frank was in “Thief.” He’s the last individual standing in a corporate world. There’s a great scene near the end when Dillinger drops off a girl downtown, then spies the Chicago Police Station across the street. He doesn’t just go into the police station, he goes into the Dillinger squad room, large, like a football field, and looks at all the photos they’ve taken, all the memorabilia they’ve gathered, all the equipment they need. To get him. Amusement shines in his eyes. The squad room seems empty, but slowly, dreamily, we realize, no, the men are just gathered at one end near a radio, listening to the ballgame. Dillinger stops, watches them, asks a question. They answer without looking up. He continues to smile. Tectonic shifts have occurred but he’s still a man who goes anywhere he wants. Even here.
I’m still gestating the film. I need to see it again. At the screening yesterday, someone brought a toddler and the kid talked through crucial scenes, distracting everyone. And since it was at a multiplex, a corporate AMC entity, there was no one there to complain to.
But I want to see it again. Maybe that’s comment enough.
Review: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (2009)
WARNING: PRIME SPOILERS
Watching “Transformers: The Revenge of the Fallen,” in which two sects of ancient machines—Autobots (good ones) and Decepticons (bad ones)—battle each other over the future of the human race, and realizing that this horrifying spectacle of nonsense made $60 million at the box office last Wednesday, breaking almost all one-day records and so forever dooming us to more of the same, I began to root for the Decepticons. I figured if we are dumb enough to give this thing primacy in our culture, better to end it. Finish us off now.
Did 46-year-olds back in 1977 think this way when they first saw “Star Wars”? I doubt it. “Star Wars” was not just futuristic whiz-bang stuff but a throwback. It recalled the excitement and cliffhangers of 1930s and ‘40s movie serials. “It even has a swing across a chasm!” a friend of my father’s said that summer, defending the film (from him). It was also populated with archetypes: the naive, dreamy hero; the bad-ass rebel; the tough princess; the wise father; the bad guy in black. Characters steeped in history and myth.
“Transformers” deals in stereotypes: characters steeped in our shitty, throwaway culture. There’s already controversy about Skids and Mudflap, the trash-talking, hip-hop (and, for whatever reason, ugly) Autobots used as comic relief throughout the movie, but they’re just the start. What about the small, ratty Decepticon, who seems voiced by Steve Buscemi but isn’t (Buscemi should sue), and who is last seen humping Megan Fox’s leg? What about the empirical British Decepticon-turned-Autobot who actually uses a cane to get around? What about Optimus Prime, whose voice is so grand and bland and devoid of personality he sounds less like a hero than a satire of a hero?
The humans in the movie are even more reductive. Army men are brave, smart and loyal; glasses-wearing bureaucrats are dumb and meddlesome. Most everyone is comic relief, particularly if they’re ethnic. Actually it’s interesting to consider who’s not comic relief. Sam (Shia LeBeouf) generally plays straight man. So does Major Lennox, the handsome white army dude. So does the white army general and Optimus Prime. Meanwhile, Sam’s college roommate, a Hispanic Web site operator and professional blowhard, acts cowardly, tasers himself with his pants around his ankles, and winds up inadvertently nestling with Agent Simmons (John Turturo). The Friday-afternoon crowd I saw this with thought all of it hilarious. They roared with laughter.
Plot? Do we go there?
Apparently Transformers need a substance called Energon to survive, and one way to get Energon is to destroy a sun. (And you thought we were wasteful.) Most Transformers refuse to destroy a universe with life in it but some don’t care. These two factions clashed on Earth in 17,000 B.C., and the Autobots, sacrificing themselves for primitive humans, hid the “matrix key” that works the “sun harvester machine” from the Decepticons. Transformers have been living here ever since. But what exactly does a Transformer transform into in, say, 5,000 B.C.? A spear? And why have we evolved during the last 19,000 years but Transformers stayed the same?
That’s backstory. The story proper begins when a “shard” from the previous film’s “cube” is loosened from Sam’s clothes, and all sorts of small, cackling Transformers are created, recalling “Gremlins.” They’re quickly stopped by Sam’s loyal Autobot, the Chevy Camaro, but the incident hardly slows Sam or the movie down. He’s about to leave for college and he’s dealing with a crying mother, a girlfriend above his paygrade, and a wish to lead a normal life. He can’t be bothered by creatures that nearly destroyed the world.
Once at college, he’s confronted with the aforementioned Hispanic roommate, a hot girl who keeps coming onto him but who is actually a Transformer (and a ripoff of “Species” and “Terminator 3”), and the fact that, in an already infamous quote, “Megatron wants what’s in my brain!”
Megatron, chief villain in the earlier film, begins this one dead on the sea floor but he’s soon resurrected by other Decepticons. So why does he, and his master, the Fallen, want what’s in Sam’s brain? Because apparently Sam has knowledge of where that matrix key is located. How did he get it? Who knows? Can he access it? No. Instead he spouts gibberish and draws ancient symbols on his dorm walls. Is Megatron making him do this or is it the knowledge itself? Again: Who knows? Never ask “why” in this thing.
The Fallen wants to return to Earth to get his revenge but Optimus is in the way. Apparently only a Prime can defeat the Fallen. (Why? Oh, right. Sorry.) So once Optimus, the last of the Primes, is killed protecting Sam, Earth is wide open and the Fallen returns. I believe he lands in Paris while Megatron alights on the Met Life Building in New York City, declaring, to no one in particular, “It’s time for the world to know of our presence! No disguises! No mercy!” Then Decepticons destroy New York.
Whoops, sorry, they don’t. In fact, by the time we return to New York, with Sam and Mikaela (Megan Fox) and the Hispanic dude, who are searching for someone to translate the symbols in Sam’s head, New Yorkers are hanging in a deli, calmly ordering food. Apparently Decepticons decided to show Poughkeepsie no mercy instead.
But wait... Decoding the symbols in Sam’s head? Won’t that lead to the matrix key and play into Megatron’s plan to destroy our universe? Well, yes. But Sam assumes the matrix key will also revive Optimus. At one point we get this exchange:
Sam: Everyone’s after me because of what I know. And I know this is going to work.
Mikaela: How do you know it’s going to work?
Sam: Because I believe it.
Characters who know something because they believe it are part of a long tradition in Hollywood movies, and not just Christmas movies, but not many are willing to risk the entire universe on the assumption. Not that anyone raises this point with Sam. Even after they find the key and it turns to dust, Sam still gathers the dust, runs through the desert with it—dodging Decepticon fire all the while (they’re lousy shots)—but is finally struck down. At that point he’s visited in his mind (or his soul?) by Autobot Elders, who reward him for his sacrifice to Optimus by reviving him. Then the key is revived. Then Optimus is revived. Then Decepticons steal the key anyway and try to turn off our sun.
This synopsis, by the way, doesn’t begin to reveal the soul-numbing stupidity of this thing. Transformers have the ability to regenerate themselves with parts of other, dead Transformers, and that’s how this movie was made—from plot points and storylines of other movies grafted onto this one without any sense of style or logic or genuine emotion. On the run, and knowing that the universe might end because of the knowledge in Sam’s head, what do Sam and Mikaela talk about? Whether Sam should kill himself to keep this knowledge from Megatron? No. They argue about which one of them is going to say “I love you” first. (See: “The Fifth Element.”) It’s as if they know they’re going to survive. Which they do. Michael Bay is almost postmodern in this respect. His characters aren’t characters but devices. The question is never “How would people in this situation react?” It’s always “How can people in this situation entertain the movie audience until we reach the conclusion we all know we’ll reach?”
OK, maybe this will give you an idea how bad “Transformers 2” is. During Optimus’ first death-battle with Decepticons, when he finally topples near the woods of the west coast, sacrificing himself for all of us but particularly for Sam, the music wells up majestically, tragically, because that’s what movies do at this point in the story. But it’s so obviously aping other movies, and so fantastically off, that it made me question the legitimacy of all movies. By substituting a gigantic, stentorian hunk of metal for a human being that we might actually care about, Michael Bay is revealing the absurdity of the medium itself.
In a perfect world, this thing would be a b-movie, playing in drive-ins somewhere, and eventually mocked by MST3K for its absurdities. Instead, it made over $200 million during its first five days, ensuring its continuing status as a centerpiece of our culture.
With apologies to Allen Ginsberg: America, go fuck yourself with your “Transformers 2.”
Review of “Food, Inc.” (2009)
WARNING: ORGANIC SPOILERS
My girlfriend, Patricia, who can barely tolerate meanness let alone cruelty to animals, saw the documentary “Food, Inc.” with me last night, and there were moments when she had a rough go of it. Caring boyfriend that I am, I wish she’d had it rougher. I wish she’d run screaming from the theater. I wish we all had. Maybe we would have if we’d been able to get a closer view of those big factory farms and slaughterhouses. It’s astonishing, when you think about it, that we can’t. This is a public interest issue, a public health issue. What have they got to hide? Special sauce? Secret recipe? One of the farmers, selling to Tyson, says his chickens never see the light of day. In a way, neither do we.
Yes, I’m already the converted—I’ve read Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation,” reviewed Greg Critser’s “Fat Land,” saw “Super Size Me”—but I still need to be preached at. You begin to forget if you don’t take communion. Just the other day I had two cheeseburgers at Dick’s. I thought: Why not? Then last night I watched an industry executive bragging about the ammonia they put in meat filler, which is in 70 percent of meat sold in this country. I thought: Oh, right.
“Food, Inc.” doesn’t take cheap shots but I wanted it to hit harder. Sometimes it goes for the soft, lefty emotional appeal. Here’s the mother of a 2 1/2 year-old boy who was killed by E coli in 2001 and who now lobbies Congress (fruitlessly) for greater regulations in the meat industry. Here’s an immigrant family that can only afford the fast food that is making them sicker. Both stories are sad. So are billions of others. Give me facts. Show me footage. Make me throw up.
Filmmaker Robert Kenner got my attention right away. He strolled us down the clean aisles of a modern supermarket in haunting, dreamy fashion—like something out of a David Lynch movie—while the narrator (Eric Schlosser) said the following:
The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000.
That’s scary enough. Then I realized I’m 46. My entire lifetime encompasses this warped timeframe.
They give us facts. In 1970 the top five beef producers produced 20 percent of the nation’s beef. Now the top four produce 80 percent of it.
A chicken in 1950 took 90 days to reach maturity. Now it takes 49 days. And they’re twice the size. Some have grown so large so quickly they can’t even walk. We see them stumbling. It feels like we’re messing with the plan—Nature’s or God’s, take your pick.
Our government subsidizes corn, which is put into almost everything we eat, and which is shipped around the country to feed cattle. An organic farmer points to his cows in a field and talks about the natural cycles. The cows eat the grass, then shit on the grass, which fertilizes the grass, allowing the grass to grow so they can eat it again. We’re messing with this plan—Nature’s or God’s, take your pick. Now we truck in tons of corn to feed tons of fenced-in cattle and truck out tons of manure. Industry claims this is an efficient system, but it’s not as efficient as God’s or Nature’s. It also leads to disease.
We get footage of the E coli breakouts. Remember Jack in the Box in 1993? That was a big deal. Then, in rapid fashion, and for diminishing attention spans, we get breakouts in ’98, ’01, ’02, ’06. Unless we’re directly involved, we've stopped paying attention. It used to be just meat. Now it’s spinach. Runoff from factory slaughterhouses is making even our vegetables deadly.
Kenner has trouble focusing because the subject, like the runoff, gets into everything. So NAFTA legislation allows a flood of cheap, government-subsidized corn into Mexico, which puts 1.5 million Mexican farmers out of work, which forces many north, here, to work in our factory farms and slaughterhouses. Until of course the illegal-alien thing becomes hot. Then they’re rounded up and shipped back, in careful intervals, so as not to disturb production. The labor issue is definitely a consequence of the bigger subject—why and what we’re eating—but it still feels peripheral. It still feels softy lefty.
Here’s the focus. Industries are now cloning animals but they’re not required by the FDA to label the product “cloned meat.” The California legislature passed a resolution requiring the labeling but Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed it. Hasta la vista, baby.
Here’s the focus. Monsanto created and, in the 1980s, successfully patented a genetically-altered soybean called Roundup Ready, which is resistant to their herbicide Roundup. They own the seed. In 1996, 20 percent of soybeans in the U.S. were Monsanto’s; by 2008, 90 percent were. They sue any farmer who keeps one of their seeds, or onto whose farm a genetically altered seed is blown by the wind. Other soybean seeds are now disappearing (forever?) in favor of Roundup Ready. Monsanto is putting God out of business.
Here’s the focus. In 13 states, the food industry can sue people—such as Oprah in ‘96—who make disparaging comments about their products. It’s called veggie libel laws. To fight you need Oprah’s money. Imagine if the film industry could sue a critic who disparaged its product. The mind reels.
Here’s the focus. For much of the last 20 years, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, industry regulators (heads of the FDA, etc.) have been of the industry. They have ties to the Monsantos of the world. Their interests are not our interests. Military-industrial complex? Pikers.
That’s the kind of thing I wanted more of. I wanted a concentrated, close-up look at what our food is and why.
At the same time, maybe it’s better that Kenner didn’t hit too hard. “You’ve got to hold something back for pressure,” Robert Frost said of poetry. Kenner does. He leaves it to us to provide the pressure.
Here’s mine. Here’s me letting off steam. If a company like Monsanto can patent a genetically altered soybean, then force them to call it something besides a soybean. In all of their packaging, in all of their marketing, the term “soybean” cannot be used. Because a soybean is God’s product, Nature’s product, not Monsanto’s product. Let them call it a crapbean. Let’s pass that legislation.
The scariest people in the doc tend to be industry people who speak their mind, who have no broad overview. “Everything we’ve done in modern agriculture is to grow it faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper,” one says. This is how business people think, and should think, but there should be balance from elsewhere and we’re not getting it. Why we’re imbalanced.
The business of business is to speed up the assembly line, to push things through the system at a faster and faster rate, and in doing so, they’ve created a product that is not the product. This is everywhere, in all business. So rather than wait for homeowners to pay off their mortgages, we’ve turned mortgages into mortgage securities, which banks sell to investment banks, who then sell them to investors, which frees up the banks to lend again. Ad infinitum. Until infinitum comes calling. So with our food. We’re pushing chickens and soybeans through the system at a faster and faster rate, but what we’re pushing through is no longer chickens and soybeans. It’s something else. Ad infinitum. Until infinitum comes calling.
The doc ends with a plea for individual responsibility. Everything you buy and eat is a vote. Be careful how you vote. I agree. But more needs doing. Government needs to be on the side of consumers rather than just business. At the least, we need to be able to know what’s in our food. “Food, Inc.” is a start for those who need a start. It’s communion for those who don’t. Check it out. The situation is worse than you think.
Review: “L'emmerdeur” (2008)
WARNING: AS MANY SPOILERS AS FRANCOIS PIGNONS
As you watch “L’emmerdeur” (“A Pain in the Ass”), the latest comedy from Francis Veber, and as you’re enjoying the typical Veberian patterns—the comedic clash between an emotional, obtuse man (the feminine), and a tough, professional and slightly dangerous man (the masculine)—you realize, after about 45 minutes, that most of the action is taking place in two adjoining hotel rooms. And you think, “Hell, this could’ve been a play. How odd that Veber wrote such a play-like film so late in his career.”
At least that’s what you think if, like me, you really don’t know Veber. Afterwards I learned that “L’emmerdeur” is a remake of a 1973 film of the same name, which was based upon Veber’s 1969 play, “Le contrat,” which was also the basis for Billy Wilder’s last film, “Buddy Buddy,” in 1981. It's been told a lot, in other words. Is it worth revisiting?
The set-up still works. A hitman, Jean Milan (Richard Berry), attempting to kill a high-level witness, takes an adjoining hotel room with a man, Francois Pignon (Patrick Tims), trying to kill himself. And the incompetence of the latter disrupts the super-competence of the former.
Pignon’s wife has left him for her shrink and he’s a puddle. He calls her, declares his suicidal intentions, then tries hanging himself from the bathroom shower. It breaks, alerting the hotel clerk in Milan’s room, who wants to call the police. Since the last thing Milan needs is cops flying around while he’s trying to assassinate someone in the plaza below, he takes responsibility and shoos the clerk away. But now he’s responsible. The cops would’ve been easy in comparison.
Tims is the 8th actor to play Pignon, the nom de choix for the feminine half of Veber’s buddy comedies. Others include Gad Elmelah in “La doublure” (2006), Daniel Auteuil in “Le placard” (2001) and Jacques Villeret in “Le diner de cons” (1998). But the most famous and probably the best to take on Pignon was Pierre Richard in two Veber comedies with Gerard Depardieu in the 1980s: “Les comperes” (remade as “Father’s Day” in the U.S., with Robin Williams in the Pignon role) and “Les fugitifs” (remade as “Three Fugitives” in the U.S., with Martin Short in the Pignon role). You could add “Le chevre” (1981) to the mix, too. Veber wrote and directed it, Depardieu starred as the tough guy, and Richard played the hapless half named Francois...Perrin. Basically the same deal.
Not to be mean but Tims made me long for Richard. Pignon is such a bothersome character that one invariably roots for the other guy, even if, as here, the other guy’s a professional killer. Because at least he’s professional. But Richard had a dreamy quality that made his Pignon palatable. There was something crisp and determined about his dreaminess, too. He may have been wrong, but he was only wrong because the world is wrong. You need Depardieu’s headbutting ways to get by, and Richard’s Pignon only half-understood this. In a way he seemed determined not to understand this. He preferred his brand of idiocy to the world’s.
The Pignon of “Le diner de cons” worked in a different way. In that film, which was the highest-grossing film in France in 1998, the set-up was so horrible—a group of successful, professional men inviting the biggest idiot they could find to a dinner, at which a champion idiot would be crowned, with Pierre Brochant, of course, choosing Pignon—that we had no sympathy at all for Brochant, and in fact cheered on Pignon as his genial idiocy slowly ruined Brochant’s life. Brochant asked for what he got. He invited it in.
Tims’ Pignon is not dreamy and he’s not genial, and the hitman Jean Milan never invited him in. Plus the notion that this schlumpy Pignon was ever the husband of the gazelle-like Louise (Virginie Ledoyen, 16 years Tims’ junior) seems too absurd even for comedy. I could see her marrying Richard and his brand of dreaminess. But what does Tims bring? What’s his redeeming factor? Does he have one? That’s one of the main problems with the film.
A side-note. Could the Veberian dynamic (the masculine-feminine “buddy” film) work with an actual female in the Pignon role? I doubt it. It would disrupt the comedic dilemma. I.e.: What does a professional tough guy do when forced into partnership with an emotional puddle who is not a woman? You turn the character into a woman and you sacrifice comedy for romance.
There’s a phrase I use a lot as an editor, and I first thought of it while watching the final scene of Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby”: a soft landing. It’s a shot that brings us back to earth with nary a bump and yet is so resonant that it glides us along even as the credits roll. It’s a beautiful thing when done right and Veber’s the master. Even his disappointing films, such as “Le chevre,” give us soft landings, and “L’emmerdeur” is no different. The cops, finally alerted to trouble, shoot a tear-gas canister into Milan’s room. On the bed, Pignon, stronger now, taking charge now, puts his arm around the undone professional killer and assures him that, even in prison, he will always stick by him and never abandon him. He says this as clouds of puffy gas fill the room, slowly enveloping the two. And in that shot we finally get the dreaminess we needed all along.
Review: "Wind Blows in the Meadow" (2009)
You get the feeling something has been lost in translation in the Iranian film “Wind Blows in the Meadow.” The meadow, for example. “Wind Blows Through the Woods” would be a more accurate title but the subtitles screw even this up, calling a patch of snow- and ice-covered trees near a northern Iranian mountain village a “jungle.” Too bad. The wind that blows in the woods is one of the film’s key symbols. It loudly and ominously loosens ice and snow onto the people below. It portends disaster.
The movie begins simply. A man goes into the woods and cuts down a tree with a chainsaw. He’s cutting off its branches when he suddenly screams. It’s rolled over onto him.
A young woman with beautiful dark eyes buys supplies at the local store, then says “Put it on my account,” and gets a nasty look from the proprietor. Outside a young man with Down syndrome tries to give the girl some jewelry, but she regards it, and him, with something between horror and hatred. What’s going on?
Everything falls into place in the next scene. The woodsman, Taleb, is bedridden and in debt, and so he’s promised the hand of his daughter, the dark-eyed Shouka, to Shokrollah, the boy with Down syndrome. No, wait, she’s been promised to his father, the old but tough Nasir. No, she has been promised to Shokrollah, who is horribly smitten and wants to kiss her, while she can only regard him with disgust.
OK, so not everything falls into place.
I have to admit, after the family patriarchs finalize the upcoming marriage, and after Shouka’s mother (mother-in-law? aunt?) chastises the girl for refusing to come when called, and then Shouka does, standing there beautiful and defiant, I kind of rolled my eyes. I thought: OK, this is one of those Lifetime-Channel movies for the indie filmgoer. They go pretending to embrace the foreignness of the film but truly embrace its western aspects: in this case, the defiance of a beautiful woman in a backwards, patriarchal (and horribly, horribly foreign) setting. Plus aren’t her scarves gorgeous?
I also knew, from the synopsis, that the plot concerns a Romeo and Juliet type relationship, and so, like women everywhere, I sat back and waited for Romeo to show up.
The film is better than that. It’s more foreign than that. At a tea house, a tailor, Rafie, agrees to do the wedding up fine—suit for the groom, dress for the bride—and one assumes his assistant, Jalil, a vaguely handsome young man with dark hair and high cheekbones, will play Romeo, as he does. But he’s not much smarter than Shokrollah, and he’s slow to realize his role in the story. He’s also not that handsome, or interesting, or courageous. You think: She could still do better.
Once Jalil overhears Shouka’s complaints, though, and then sees her in her wedding dress, he concocts a scheme to delay the wedding long enough for Shouka to talk to her aunt, who talks to Taleb, who calls off the wedding. But it turns out the old man, Nasir, and Yahya, his brother (eldest son?), are not to be trifled with. Hell, Jalil barely looks at Shouka before Yahya is threatening him with a knife. Things get fairly lawless, and one wonder if this is a lawless society or if Nasir and Yahya are like the Iranian-village version of the Mafia. That would make Rafie the tailor a kind of Enzo the Baker who performs a favor for the local don...that goes horribly awry.
I like the fact that I don’t know. I don’t know Iranian society, let alone Iranian mountain-village society, so I miss all the cultural signifiers. I’m dropped in the middle of this story, which, sans a chainsaw and truck, could’ve taken place 500 or 1,000 years ago, and am forced to feel my way around.
It’s its very foreignness, in other words, that intrigues. At the same time, what kicks the story into high gear are two of the more ancient and universal lessons we know: beautiful women are coveted; and men are brutal.