Tidings of Job

8 minute read
Richard Corliss

On a flatbed train, the soldiers survey their stock — a pile of emaciated bodies, hundreds of men, dead or near dead — and begin their work. With brute efficiency they toss the bodies into a deep, burning pit. Down the hill the bodies roll, toward incineration. They don’t slide with the burly grace of stunt men; they topple clumsily, bumping into one another, robbed of dignity even in their dying. For agonizing minutes the carnage continues, until the soldiers’ job is done and the pit smolders with an almost visible stench.

This is the climactic scene of Oles Yanchuk’s Famine-33, a scarifying film about the real-life murder and starvation of more than 6 million Ukrainians by Stalin’s bureaucrats in 1932-33. Not many Americans will see this picture, which opened last week in one New York City theater; stark, iconic, black-and- white Ukrainian movies, especially when their subject is “the hidden Holocaust,” have limited mall appeal. But in its meticulously brutal imagery, in its theme of humanity enslaved and justice outraged, in its Manichaean categorizing of people as holy victims or soulless villains, Famine-33 has important similarities to Hollywood-financed pictures coming this Christmas to a ‘plex near you.

Yuletide at the movies is often grim; Sophie’s Choice, Scarface, Ironweed, Hoffa and most of Oliver Stone’s psychodramas were December releases. The reason is coincidence: Christmas Day also marks the start of the last eligible week for the year’s Oscar nominees to be released, and that’s the cue for superserioso films. So audiences in search of vigorously vacant entertainment this holiday season will find Mrs. Doubtfire and not much else. The rest is state torture, mortal prejudice, mass death. Instead of tidings of joy, Hollywood offers the writhings of Job.

Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which opened last week, has already provided the elevated downer of the decade. But wait, there’s more. Trailing Schindler, and in the line of Doubtfire, is a trio of high-minded horror shows:

— Heaven & Earth. Oliver Stone is back for a third tour of Vietnam, after Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. But for once in an American movie, the focus is on the Vietnamese, and on the sufferers: the land and the women. Phung Le Ly (played by newcomer Hiep Thi Le), growing up in the idyllic rice farmland of central Vietnam, becomes the victim of every possible atrocity as civil war heats up in the late ’50s. She is tortured with knives, electric prods, snakes, even ants; she is brutalized by the republican army and raped by the Viet Cong. She is a stand-in for her lovely country, despoiled by successive invaders like a slave princess by jealous pashas. And when she escapes to the U.S. with her sergeant husband (Tommy Lee Jones), life doesn’t improve. It’s still sexual rapacity, guns and ammo, war games by other means.

— In the Name of the Father. Daniel Day Lewis stars as Gerry Conlon, the Belfast man who, while on a London spree in 1975, was unjustly arrested, convicted and jailed as an I.R.A. terrorist. The British police in charge of the case were no Miss Marples; they tortured the four major suspects to extract bogus confessions. In director Jim Sheridan’s tense retelling of this shameful chapter in British jurisimprudence, the lads are smacked, threatened and humiliated. And Gerry’s saintly father (Pete Postlethwaite), jailed with him, is allowed to die slowly, with little medical attention. By the end of the movie, whether or not you’re a member of Sinn Fein, the Brits’ brutality toward the Conlons will get your Irish up.

— Philadelphia. Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks), a lawyer who is quietly gay and controllably HIV-positive, learns he now has AIDS. The partners in his firm find out too. When they confect a phony excuse to fire him, Andy sues for wrongful dismissal and hires a skeptical, cut-rate attorney (Denzel Washington) to defend him. Can the case against these powerful solons be won? And if so, will Andy be alive to savor the victory? Philadelphia’s agony lies less in these questions than in Andy’s drastic deterioration. Hanks so scrupulously, heroically mimes the wasting wrought by the disease, from chest lesions to a 30-lb. weight loss, that Jonathan Demme’s film ultimately becomes a documentary on the ravages of AIDS — and on the masochistic machismo of Method acting.

In theory, all these pictures should be cheered. Films, even American films, needn’t be only a baby sitter or a roller coaster. They can aspire to edify, to pry minds open to moral indignities around the world and in our own cranky hearts. Why can’t directors aim high — not just for an Oscar but, hey, maybe a Nobel Peace Prize? And why shouldn’t moviegoers, like everyone else during the holidays, be subject to compassion overload? Or be confronted by purposeful screen suffering until they shout, like Wayne and Garth, “We’re not worthy”?

No reason at all. But often, when smart directors tackle a “controversial” issue like Vietnam or the Irish question or AIDS, they forget some of their art. Instead of building scenes deftly, allusively, they accumulate horrific detail to make sure you get the point. The films get longer, more ponderous; they sit on your chest until you finally surrender to their good intentions. In the process, they may become sentimental, cautionary fables of mistaken identity, compiling atrocities and piling them on photogenic victims. Suffering sanctifies Le Ly and Gerry’s dad and Andy, makes them objects of veneration to the faithful; everyone wants to kiss the hem of their torment.

In the ’30s and ’40s, Hollywood made “controversial” films about lynching. But the victim was always innocent; no one dared say that even a guilty man deserved due process. In 1947, when Elia Kazan was making Gentleman’s Agreement, about a writer who discovers anti-Semitism while pretending to be Jewish, a crew member told Kazan he got the moral: We should be nice to Jews because they might turn out to be Gentiles.

Today’s corollaries are no more subtle. Police shouldn’t torture men suspected of terrorism, because they might not have done it. Soldiers should not rape girls, because they might be as cute as Bambi. Corporate lawyers (Hollywood’s new villain, here and in The Firm and The Pelican Brief) should not railroad a man with AIDS, because he might be Tom Hanks.

Hanks’ Andy is a wonderful fellow: chipper, supremely competent, lavishing genial respect on colleagues high and low. He also seems a good subject for a sensibly daring film about AIDS. And for its first hour, Philadelphia is a pretty fine social comedy about private pain; it lays out the dilemma with a grace almost worthy of Hanks’ bravely understated playing. But then it becomes % much too timid. It says that the death threat hanging over gays commands our sympathy for them. It renounces character shadings for easy good guys (Andy’s huge family, each one of them amazingly accepting) and crumb-bums (his bosses, who can only mutter and sputter). Nothing in the real world is quite so simple as this.

And, to tell the truth, no ambitious movie is quite so simple as magazine trend pieces may try to make it seem. Certainly not Heaven & Earth, which is thematically grotesque but visually gorgeous: the camera takes in the spectacle of Southeast Asia (Thailand mostly, stunt-doubling for Vietnam) with the rapture of an intelligent lover. Because it traces Phung Le Ly’s life story, the film is dramatically misshapen: its most singing moments are in the first half. And audiences may be as weary of Stone’s haranguing about Vietnam as they are afraid of people with AIDS. But if Stone simplifies and distorts, he often does so brilliantly, like a cartoonist with a Fauvist’s eye for the drama in color and character.

In the Name of the Father showcases a different kind of art. Sheridan (My Left Foot) is a bricklayer among directors; you can see the mortar between scenes. But he dares to make his hero something more, or rather less, than a plaster saint; Gerry is a scurvy thief who is guilty of every social crime but the one he’s charged with. The drama here is eventually located not in the young man’s battle against the Brits but in the coming to terms with his father, and thus his place in his family and his haggard country. It’s a jailbird love story of two men bound by blood.

By the end, the conventions of all three films are exposed. They mean to shock and then inspire, with the revelation that good people can triumph. They amount to a tiny ray of Hollywood sunshine in the storm of 20th century chaos. While seeming to look clearly at the world, they ignore the bitter, deprived existences of most people who live in it: in Ukraine or Ireland or Vietnam, or in the death camp of an AIDS ward.

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