FILMS

Saints and sinners

Brian D. Johnson December 20 1993
FILMS

Saints and sinners

Brian D. Johnson December 20 1993

Saints and sinners

FILMS

SCHINDLER’S LIST Directed by Steven Spielberg

The prospect of Steven Spielberg, Hollywood’s emperor of escapism, directing an epic about the Holocaust is, at first glance, alarming. Reality has never been his strong suit. Spielberg’s attempts at serious drama, from The Color Purple to Always, have been disappointing. And the last time he made a movie with Nazis in it, they were the cartoonlike villains of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Schindler’s List, based on the true story of a German industrialist who saved 1,100 Polish Jews from the death camps, is a movie that Spielberg has been trying to make for the past decade. It is a monumental epic filmed on location in Poland. It is also Spielberg’s most personal and passionate film, an attempt to explore his own Jewish heritage.

The movie, adapted from the 1982 book by Thomas Keneally, is a hugely ambitious undertaking. With the help of a strong cast, Spielberg has pulled it off. As a Hollywood treatment of the Holocaust, the movie veers close to exploitation in some scenes. And towards the end, the film’s heroic dimensions undermine the realism. But on balance, Schindler’s List is an undeniably powerful drama. Running W/\ hours in black and

white, it is rivetting throughout. And in an age of creeping Holocaust denial, it serves as an invaluable reminder of a horrific episode in human history.

The story of Oskar Schindler is an extraordinary one. Deftly played by Liam Neeson, Schindler is an ebullient, fun-loving black marketeer who sports a Nazi pin on his well-

A heroic German, a proud Indian and a bickering couple

tailored suits and is reaping enormous profits from the war. He sets up an enamelware factory in Krakow, Poland, with a legion of unpaid Jewish workers. But as the atrocities mount and his workers are herded into a concentration camp, his proprietary concern for them turns to compassion. Ben Kingsley is quietly brilliant as Schindler’s Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stem. And as Nazi commandant Amon Goeth, Ralph Fiennes gives the movie’s most crucial performance, capturing the human psychology that permits genocide.

Spielberg has shot the first half of the movie almost as a documentary, focusing on the Holocaust and leaving Schindler on the sidelines. Gradually, the character moves to centre stage. He is a fascinating man—a drinker, womanizer and sly opportunist who finally discovers his conscience. But his conversion seems synthetic, and by canonizing him, Spielberg eventually slips into mythmaking mode.

Until then, however, the director restrains himself. The black-and-white photography is both appropriate and haunting. Many of the images, such as a shot of a train entering Auschwitz at night, have a chilling beauty. The combination of glorious esthetics land horrific content can gbe troublesome for the “viewer. But by dramatiz-

ing the Holocaust with such vividness and scale, Spielberg has helped to pass its lessons on to future generations.

GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND

Directed by Walter Hill

Cowboys and Indians. Ever since Dances With Wolves (1990), the mies of the game have changed. The Indians are the good guys. Their conquest is America’s original sin, synonymous with environmental rape and dishonest democracy. And it is now mandatory that natives portray natives on-screen and speak to each other in subtitled aboriginal dialects. But the fundamentals of the cowboysand-Indians movie remain the same: guns, horses and gorgeous landscapes.

Gerónimo attempts to combine the classical and the correct—with mixed results. It is the story of the last great Indian leader to surrender in the American West. After years of eluding some 5,000 U.S. troops and 3,000 Mexican soldiers, in 1886 Gerónimo finally gave himself up with a band of 36 men, women and children. Wes Studi, the intense Cherokee actor who played Magua in The Last of the Mohicans, is well cast in the role of the Apache leader. He conveys both ferocity and wisdom. Yet, although the movie is ostensibly devoted to Gerónimo, his character has to share centre stage with a crowd of heroic white men.

The story is told from the viewpoint of a young West Point graduate named Britton Davis (Matt Damon), who has just joined the campaign to capture Gerónimo. The hunt is led by Lieut. Charles Gatewood (Jason Patrie), who sees himself as Geronimo’s soul mate on the other side. With a precious Virginian accent and an unflinching, blue-eyed gaze, Patrie seems to be acting in a kind of trance, as a white man infused with the tranquillity of Indian wisdom. But his mannered performance looks more like a poor impression of Marlon Brando playing the sensitive soldier in Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Gene Hackman, meanwhile, portrays another Indian fighter admired by the enemy for his honesty, Brig.-Gen. George Crook, Gatewood’s commanding officer. Something of a liberal for his time, Gatewood hires Apache scouts to track and fight Apache renegades. The scoutmaster is a grizzled frontiersman named Al Sieber, played with grit and wit by Robert Duvall. Sieber lives to kill Indians—his body is riddled with the scars of 17 bullet and arrow wounds. But even he is an honorable man who respects his foe.

The bad guys, ranging from a lying general to a gang of bounty hunters, are all marginal characters. That may explain the odd lack of dramatic tension in Gerónimo. The movie offers a watchable history lesson. The action scenes, which include some stunning horsemanship against the red mesas of California’s Mojave Desert, are breathtaking. And everything is filmed in a lovely bronze light. But Gerónimo remains an enigma, an icon surrounded by well-meaning white guys. Another case of too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

BAD BEHAVIOUR

Directed by Les Blair

It is one of those featherweight British films that seem to come out of nowhere, without an ounce of hype, but with loads of charm. In a Christmas season burdened with big Hollywood movies about serious issues— Schindler’s List (genocide), Heaven and Earth (Vietnam) and Philadelphia (AIDS)—it arrives as a welcome tonic. Bad Behaviour is a well-observed comic drama about marriage, middle age and domestic neurosis. Stephen Rea (who made his mark last year in The Crying Game) and Sinead Cusack (who co-starred with husband Jeremy Irons in Waterland) play an Irish couple, Gerry and Elbe, living in London with two children. Both their house and their marriage are in need of shoring up.

They hire twin renovators who, along with a sleazy contractor, provide a framework of farce. But the heart of the film lies in the droll bickering between the two protagonists. Gerry, an urban planner, is a deadpan model of passive-aggressive behavior, needling his wife with a dry wit while contemplating a fling with a younger woman at work. Ellie, who works part time in a bookstore, prematurely frets about menopause while trying to get her husband to talk about their relationship. The dialogue, improvised from a two-page outline, has a natural, quirky texture. Although Bad Behaviour flirts with clichés, it keeps veering away from them at the last minute, offering subtle surprises right down to a delightfully ragged ending.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON