Shadowy corners

Brian D. Johnson March 11 1996

Shadowy corners

Brian D. Johnson March 11 1996

Shadowy corners


Like everything else, the dream industry has become globalized. It is a Hollywood franchise based on familiarity, on brand names like Clint and Arnold, icons as ubiquitous as Marlboro and Coke. Bucking the tide, however, some foreign films have washed up on North American shores this month. Iran’s The White Balloon, Italy’s Lamerica and France’s La Haine are foreign in every sense of the word. They are all extraordinary films that reveal hidden corners of the world with uncanny realism.

And they are all about characters who feel like foreigners in their own land—lost souls clinging to a dream. For a frightened young girl in The White Balloon, the dream is buying a fat white goldfish with dancing fins; for a wizened Albanian in Lamerica, it is the mirage of a promised land across the waves; and for a nihilistic youth in La Haine, it is the silver gleam of a snub-nosed revolver.

The White Balloon

is a childhood fable wrapped in documentary. It takes place in Tehran, during the final hours before the New Year holiday begins. Unfolding in real time, the story follows the whimsical odyssey of a seven-year-old girl named Razieh (Ai'da Mohammadkhani) as she tries to buy a goldfish. Like Little Red Riding Hood setting off through the woods, she makes her way through the market, clutching a glass bowl and a banknote from her mother. Torn between fear and curiosity, she is adrift in a world of strange men and immigrant accents.

It is an innocuous tale, but behind the veil of Iran’s strict Islamic codes, there is a great deal of innuendo. The girl’s father is a shadowy figure who holds a job that she is not allowed to talk about. And the forbidden attraction of some snake charmers who try to take her money conveys a mysterious domain of male power and intrigue. As Razieh explains, “I wanted to see what it was that was not good for me to watch.” The subjugation of women is never explicitly addressed but often implied—even in Razieh’s prematurely tragic eyes, weighted with the same dark suspicion as her mother’s.

Winning prizes at film festivals from Cannes to Tokyo, The White Balloon was written by celebrated Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami (Through the Olive Trees). And it was directed by his former assistant, Jafar Panahi, who has woven a seamless narrative out of performances by novice, nonprofessional actors. It is a movie that demands some patience at first but is utterly transporting in the end.

Lamerica, another film that relies on nonactors, unveils a part of the world that has rarely been seen on film. Although directed and co-written by Italy’s Gianni Amelio (Open Doors), it takes place in Albania, during the 1991 exodus of refugees. Gino (Enrico Lo Verso), a brash young Italian entrepreneur, is involved in setting up a dummy corporation to exploit Albania’s battered economy.

And to serve as its phony figurehead, he recruits a destitute 70-year-old named Spiro (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli) who is severely traumatized after spending most of his life as a political prisoner. But Spiro escapes into the countryside, and as Gino tracks him down, both men are swept along in a tide of refugees heading to Italy.

For Albanians suddenly freed from Communist dictatorship, Italy represents the promised land, just as America did for thousands of poor southern Italians (including the director’s grandfather) at the end of the Second World War. Spiro, in fact, is under the

Three movies focus on lost souls

delusion that the war has just ended and that he is on his way to America. Shooting in a compelling neo-realist style, Amelio portrays Albania as a dreadfully bleak and barren landscape, where the people are naively enchanted with their first TV images of Italian prosperity.

In documentary fashion, the director incorporates locals into the scenario. Images of refugees piled onto a truck, and later thousands of them crowded onto a rusting ship of fools, are amazing. The line between real and fictional lives in the movie is so tenuous, in fact, that the Albanian government required guarantees that the shipload of extras would not actually sail off to Italy.

La Haine (Hate), set in the housing projects of suburban Paris, portrays 24 hours in the lives of three street toughs with alarming

authenticity. Said (Said Taghmaoui), an Arab, is a small-time dope dealer. Hubert (Hubert Kounde) is a black boxer and the one character fighting for the community rather than himself. Vinz (Vincent Cassel) is a white who cultivates hate as a lifestyle—he stands in front of the mirror mimicking Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver.

The movie, which opens with footage of rioting to the tune of Bob Marley’s Burnin’ and Lootin’, focuses on an ongoing war between the police and disaffected youth. A 16year-old boy named Abdel lies at death’s door

after being beaten by police. And if he dies, Vinz has vowed to avenge him with a lost police revolver that he recovered after a riot. Filmed in black and white by 28-year-old writer-director Mathieu Kassovitz, La Haine

unfolds with an energetic insolence. Kassovitz is sympathetic but brutally unsentimental towards the movie’s petty hoodlums. It is not an easy film to watch. Most of the violence is verbal—an unrelenting racket of abuse. But the actors are superb, and

when the story kicks in, it is riveting.

Controversial for its anti-police attitude, the movie has been championed by actress Jodie Foster, who is sponsoring its North American release. It is hard to say what is more bizarre—that the music and manners of American ghetto culture have rubbed off on a Parisian suburb, or that America is importing a boyz-n-the-hood drama from France. Globalization, it seems, can cut both ways.