by Roderick Conway Morris

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Young Lives and Family Skeletons

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 11 September 1999


John Irving's best-seller 'The Cider House Rules,' the story of an orphan, his life in a foundling home and his going out into the world, has taken 13 years to reach the screen. One of the central issues of the book is abortion in the United States, which seemed more 'resolved' a decade and a half ago than it is today, making the film surprisingly topical.

Not that this movie, appearing in competition at the Venice film festival, is a piece of tub-thumping propaganda. It presents, in compelling human terms, a vivid and varied cast of characters and the moral dilemmas they face. Irving wrote the screenplay, compressing the 15-year span of the book into 15 months.

Lasse Hallestrom of Sweden artfully directs Michael Caine as Dr. Larch and Tobey Maguire as the orphan Homer

Wells (both are excellent), and convincingly re-creates the orphanage without descending into sentimentality. Oliver Stapleton's cinematography sharply contrasts the monochrome world of the children's home and the colorful open vistas of the wooded Maine landscape, paralleled by a swelling film score that is sometimes, perhaps, a trifle overlush.

Zhang Yimou's 'Not One Less' is even more dominated by its cast of children, the oldest of them being Wei Minzhi, a 13-year-old schoolgirl who is recruited as the only available substitute when the regular teacher in a remote Chinese village has to go away for a month to see his sick mother.

All the actors are nonprofessionals drawn from the milieu depicted, and the outcome, under Zhang's skilful but self-effacing direction, is a triumph of naturalism. This is a crusading film highlighting the plight of rural schools and the children whose families are so poor that they are unable even to attend these ramshackle and almost resourceless institutions, in a China where the gap between town and country is rapidly widening. But the director handles the issue with deftness and humor and his portrait of Wei Minzhi, obliged to grow up quickly by the responsibilities suddenly thrust upon her, and of her boisterous young charges is an affectionate and revealing one.

'The Wind Will Carry Us,' by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, also has a village setting. The mountainous backdrops are stunning, but the mission of a party of visitors that arrives from Tehran remains somewhat cryptic and this slow-moving film more inconclusive than thought-provoking.

A child's-eye view of the adult world is the device used to narrate two entertaining American productions, both by first-time directors: Antonio Banderas's 'Crazy in Alabama' and William Blake Herron's 'A Texas Funeral.' Both are set in the 1960s and feature the emergence of black civil rights in the South, and both contain fantastic, surreal elements.

'Crazy in Alabama' weaves together two disparate plots: the first triggered by Lucille (Melanie Griffith), who has killed her violent, drunken and abusive husband and takes off with his severed head in a hatbox to Hollywood and soap-opera stardom, and the second the murder at a sit-in at a segregated swimming pool of a black youngster by the thuggish local sheriff.

Lucille's arrest and sensational trial bring about a surprise denouement of both strands of the story, when Rod Steiger, in top form as maverick Judge Mead, descends on the scene like a deus ex machina and practically runs away with the movie, no easy feat given the consistently strong performances of Griffith and the rest of the cast.

In Herron's semi-autobiographical 'A Texas Funeral,' the Whit family comes together to lay to rest the family patriarch, listen to the reading of the will, humanely dispatch and bury beside the old man his last ailing dromedary (the Whits having been camel breeders since a forebear hijacked a herd of them from the Yankees during the Civil War). Tensions are soon rising and family skeletons falling out of cupboards. Then the deceased (Martin Sheen) appears to his grandson L'il Sparta in visions, in this quirky, amusing and unpredictable tale.

In contrast to the ebullience of the best New World productions screened, several of the in-competition European films seemed weak and lacking in ideas. The two Italian candidates, Tonino De Bernardi's 'Appassionate,' a stagy, corny Neapolitan musical melodrama, and Gianni Zanasi's 'A Domani' (See You), which had a script as flat and featureless as the central Italian landscape it is set in, were so uninspired and provincial in mentality as to be of little interest outside their regions, let alone Italy.

Benoit Jacquot's 'Pas de Scandale,' starring Isabelle Huppert among others, is a grindingly conventional bourgeois drama with a lineup of characters so humorless and self-centered that it is impossible to engage with any of them. The scenario of Marion Vernoux's 'Rien a Faire,' in which a middle manager who has been laid off meets an unemployed working-class woman and they strike up a relationship, was more promising material, but it does not quite come off.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024