by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice Film Festival
Scene from John Hillcoat's 'The Road'

Despair and a Comic Edge

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 5 September 2009


Gabriel García Márquez observed that everybody has a public life, a private life and a secret life. Todd Solondz's dramas tend to be stimulated by situations where the three collide - creating an emotional critical mass.

The director's latest production, 'Life During Wartime,' shown here in competition, is a kind of sequel to his 'Happiness' of a decade ago, but the cast is different and elements have been reordered.

It revolves around three sisters: Joy (Shirley Henderson), whose marriage to Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) is on the rocks as a result of his drug and sexual problems; Trish (Allison Janney), whose psychiatrist husband Bill (Ciarán Hinds) has been serving a long prison sentence for pedophilia, and who has an older boy away at college and is bringing up two younger children alone; and Helen (Ally Sheedy), a successful screenwriter in Los Angeles, in her own words 'crushed by the enormity of her own success,' who has broken off relations with the rest of the family.

The interlocking tales start to come together as Joy flees her marital problems to see Trish, who has moved to Florida to start a new life, and as Joy attempts to make contact again with the estranged Helen in Hollywood.

Bill is a spectral, stalking presence throughout. Unbeknownst to his ex-wife Trish and their children Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) and Chloe (Emma Hinz), who have both been told their father is dead, he has just been released from prison.

This is a serious film about guilt and forgiveness, about pedophilia and how the paranoia it inspires has come to poison normal human relations and innocent displays of affection - but it is told in Mr. Solondz's often very funny, deadpan, surreal manner.

Set against the almost ludicrously bright poster-paint colors of an eternally summery Florida, this tragi-comic tale might be subtitled 'The Three Sisters on Pharmaceuticals' - although Joy is quite capable of conjuring up hallucinations without medication, including visitations by a previous suitor, Andy (Paul Reubens), who has committed suicide but continues to press his deranged attentions on her in a series of visions.

The story is further enriched by other strange encounters: Jacqueline (Charlotte Rampling), a middle-aged mother, trawls bars looking for one-night stands. Her pick-up line to the ex-convict Bill is: 'If you're a man, single and straight - that's good enough for me,' and they duly end up in bed together.

THE ROAD This is the Australian director John Hillcoat's film version of Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same title, and he has perhaps brought from his native land some of that sense of how man can be utterly dwarfed by the vastness of an empty landscape. Except in this story, which sticks closely to Mr. McCarthy's original text, the landscape is that of a devastated and almost peopleless North America.

The continent has been reduced to a virtual desert by some unspecified cataclysmic event, which has killed off most of the population. Among the few survivors are a man (Viggo Mortensen) and a woman (Charlize Theron), whose names we never learn, somewhere in the northern part of the country.

They have a boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but amid the great cold that has descended, destroying every kind of animal and vegetable life, the future looks completely hopeless. The woman walks off one freezing night, never to be seen again.

Driven to survive, the man and the boy set off southward in search of a warmer climate and the slender chance that they will ultimately outlive the disaster. But the wilderness they have to traverse, shaken by earthquakes and blazing with forest fires, is also full of dangers, and in the absence of any other food cannibalism is rife.

This is a menacing, bleak, suspenseful drama shot with an almost monochrome, austere beauty, with impressive performances from both Mr. Mortensen and Smit-McPhee, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ms. Theron. She is still a poignant presence in the unfolding journey, appearing in flashback sequences.

Ehky ya Schahrazad Yousry Nasrallah's film - which caused a stir when it recently opened in Egypt, with thousands of signatures being gathered to condemn its star, Mona Zakki, for taking part in it - was given its international premiere in Venice.

As befits its title, 'Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story' is a multilayered tale that offers a startling picture of ingrained attitudes to women throughout contemporary Egyptian society.

Hebba (Ms. Zakki) is the popular host of a satellite television channel chat show. She has recently married Karim (Hassan El Raddad), a journalist at a government newspaper who is hoping to become its next editor in chief, and they share an apartment that would be considered luxurious anywhere in the world.

Karim's bosses disapprove of Hebba's show, which they think dwells too much on negative stories that ultimately give a bad impression of the government. Hebba and Karim have a passionate relationship, and Karim uses his sexual wiles to persuade his wife to tone down her broadcasts and deal with less controversial issues.

Hebba complies and switches her attention to human interest stories and women's issues. This journey brings her to a new understanding of the realties of life in Cairo, which unfold in her broadcasts: of a beautiful, educated, talented woman who has decided to remain single and a virgin because of the unacceptable conditions demanded by any of her suitors; a woman working in a perfume store who looks thoroughly modern by day, but reverts to the hijab to return to her squalid, poor neighborhood every night; and a woman dentist conned by an upper-class swindler and extortionist, who impregnates her and then claims he is infertile, threatening to expose her to public humiliation.

Another story - which really could have come out of the 'Arabian Nights' but apparently is based on a real incident - is of three sisters who have all, without each other's knowledge, exchanged marriage pledges and slept with their father's former apprentice, leading to the gruesome murder of the miscreant and a 15-year prison sentence for one of the enraged sisters.

These subversive narratives hold up a mirror to a society in which the dominance of men is so complete that, even in the upper echelons, women stand little or no chance of justice. Far from being 'nonpolitical,' the stories - all of which, however, would hit a lot harder if they were radically reduced in length on screen - turn out to be cumulatively explosive.

And Hebba pays the price, when her husband sees fit to exercise his traditional right to chastise the wife who has, in the view of this toadying timeserver, sabotaged his career.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023