Sunday, February 11, 2018

Film Contrasts

I left the theater at the end of The Shape of Water thinking: That was pretty good. But when it comes down to describing Guillermo del Toro's latest film in the clear light of day, the words that spring to mind are "sentimental," "didactic," "unsubtle," "in bad taste." The varnished and stylized sets reminded me of films I didn't like much, such as Hugo and Amelie, and I was also reminded more than once of a film I liked a lot more than this one, the Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar! another film set in the Eisenhower era with a Cold War subplot and elaborate dance numbers. But the Coen brothers have learned how to provide specific details that elevate their characters above the level of caricature. Del Toro's characters, good or bad, don't develop or surprise us much. Therein lies the problem.

In the role of Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning woman at a top-secret government research facility, Sally Hawkins shines, as usual. The rest of the cast, not so much. Richard Jenkins plays Elisa's roommate, a hapless, unemployed illustrator, with less pizzazz than he showed in The Visitor

Octavia Spenser plays Elisa's no-nonsense friend among the cleaning crew with the same gusto she delivered in The Help and Hidden Figures: you can't help liking her. On the other hand, Michael Shannon is especially one-dimensional as the vain, cruel, and arrogant security chief who recently discovered an exotic sea creature somewhere in Brazil, brought it back to the lab, and now delights in torturing it with a cattle prod, for no apparent reason. Del Toro, who loves cartoons,  might just as well have gone all the way and given him the name "Snidely Whiplash."

Eliza bonds with the mysterious creature, who's bright and sensitive but just as lonely and misunderstood as she is, and this connection gives the fable much of its appeal.  Some of the effects are nice. There are touches of humor and adventure here and there. A thoughtful scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg, fresh from the Coens' A Serious Man) is harassed by his communist superiors (Boris and Natasha, fresh from Rocky and Bullwinkle). But everything moves a little slowly—as if it were taking place under water.

The last few scenes are among the best, I think, but they take their strength more from voice-over words than images: "Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, It humbles my heart, For You are everywhere."

The creature is a healer, if not a god. He could defuse the Cold War, ease racial tensions, and all the rest. This is the mystery the film takes great pains to bring to life, without us knowing it. And cumbersome and two-dimensional though the narrative may often be, in the end, it sort of succeeds.

I was only hoping that as we sink to the bottom of the harbor, we'd come upon an old sedan and solve the BIG mystery, the one that has keep film fans of The Big Sleep tossing and turning for decades: who killed Sean Regan?

The Insult: This Lebanese film takes us in the opposite direction, away from dreams of love and peace toward seemingly irreconcilable strife.

The "insult" referred to in the title is personal. It comes at the end of a series of petty tit-for-tat exchanges on a day much like any other. A construction foreman loses patience with a local resident in the neighborhood where he's working who flaunts the regulations regarding a drainpipe on his balcony. The foreman, Salameh, happens to be Palestinian; the resident, Tony, is a right-wing Christian. Salameh fixes the drain, Tony destroys the new pipe with a hammer, and Salameh in turn calls Tony a "fucking prick."

Tony demands an apology. When Salameh, at the urging of his boss, finally returns to the neighborhood to offer one, he finds it impossible to do so over the din of a Christian political rally Tony's got blaring in his repair shop. Eventually Tony shouts in Salameh's face, "I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out," and Salameh punches him in the gut.

Things only get more complicated from there, and eventually these almost accidental adversaries end up in court. The contending lawyers peel away layers of personal history and memory to expose the scars and wounds both men carry after decades of sectarian strife stretching back to the civil war of 1990. Meanwhile, the Christian and Muslim camps attending the trial get rowdy, and fighting spills out into the street.

This is not one of those courtroom dramas where we're all rooting for Tom Hanks and he convinces the jury in the end. It's a tense and sometimes ugly affair in which the protagonists, both decent people, perhaps, are often just as uncomfortable as we are about the their respective lawyers' arguments and techniques. The acting is superb, the pace well-modulated, the tone even-handed. The resolution? Non-existent. 

And yet Director Ziad Doueiri has been quoted as saying: “The film is so positive, in spite of the darkness that’s looming over the Middle East. The Middle East has never been in such a bad, hopeless shape, and this film offers a lot of hope, it has a lot of humor and is pretty sympathetic to everyone. You could watch it and think we might not be so doomed after all.” 

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