dir. Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne
R, 90 min.
Showing Mar. 23-26 at Sarratt Cinema
'Rosetta', which deservedly won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year under intense controversy, is a movie about workspecifically, what it means to have it, what it means not to have it, and what you would do to get it, if circumstances were bad enough. For Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne), a teenage girl in an industrial Belgian town, circumstances are. Her mother is a part-time seamstress and a full-time alcoholic; her main contribution to the household is sleeping with the landlord of their trailer court. Rosetta lives off the dresses she can sell, the jobs she can pick up, and the fish she can catch in the local river.
As the movie opens, she’s just lost her job in a local factory. She takes the news by flailing both fists into her boss as hard as she can, then barricading herself in a storage area. She wants to work. Normal people work. Routines are a close substitute, though, and Rosetta soon follows her on rounds of them: scratching for worms outside her trailer, slipping on the wading boots she’s hidden in a drainage pipe, checking her fishing traps. The movie has been criticized for the repetition of these moments, but they’re utterly essential. From Rosetta’s grim concentration, we get a sense of how often she’s had to perform these tasks, and how much she needs the routine. Besides, apart from the information gleaned from such details, there’s no backstory. For all we know, this has always been her life.
Never far from Rosetta’s thoughts is the need for a job. When she stops at a waffle stand, the new clerk, Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione), tries to strike up a conversation with her. She doesn’t really see him. In a single ping-ponging camera movementher blank face; the change he counts out for customers; her face, rapt and hungryit’s clear she sees only the position that was recently filled. In this scene, as throughout the film, Alain Marcoen’s jumpy hand-held camera is a constant, desperate presence: It obliterates Rosetta’s privacy and our distance from her. It doesn’t so much record events as hustle us along by the collar.
Then, a miracle: She gets a job making waffle batter for Riquet’s boss. We overhear him firing the pregnant woman who held the positionin the movie’s impoverished Belgium, there’s always a replacementand the woman silently watches Rosetta shoulder a giant flour sack. Rosetta stays briefly in Riquet’s apartment, where, in a painfully awkward scene, he tries to teach her about that simplest and freest of pleasures, dancing. Even free, dancing is a luxury in Rosetta’s world. But she has value now. She has work. ”My name is Rosetta. Your name is Rosetta,“ she recites to herself before falling asleep. ”You found a job. I found a job. You’ve got a friend. I’ve got a friend. You have a normal life. I have a normal life. You won’t fall in the rut. I won’t fall in the rut.“
What the synopsis above doesn’t communicate is how absolutely gripping Rosetta is from the very first shot, and how intensely our hopes fall when the waffle-stand boss hires his deadbeat son to make the batter, thus taking away Rosetta’s job. We see her doubled over on the floor, clinging to a crumpled flour sack as if it were a life preserver. Out of pity, out of mild affection, Riquet offers a sort of sneaky sub-contracting job to Rosetta. He’s supplementing his income by double-dealing waffles; she can help him for a cut of the take. She refuses. She wants a real job and the little rituals of normalcy that go with it. She wants to wear a white apron, say ”Have a nice day“ with no conviction, and lock up at day’s end for less than minimum wage and no benefits. When Riquet falls in the quicksand-lined creek where she fishes, Rosetta senses that his position might open up sooner if she doesn’t help him. But she finds a much easier way to remove the only obstacle she sees between herself and a normal life.
It’s hard to summarize Rosetta without falling into any of the sentimental traps it so furiously avoids. Rosetta could easily have portrayed its heroine as a fragile waif, the embodiment of liberal pieties about poverty; it could just as easily have made her a conservative fantasy figure who lifts herself out of despair by sheer pluck. But Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, the brothers and former Belgian TV documentarians who made the film, don’t take the easy way out. Their previous film, La Promesse, concerned a boy who ultimately had to side with either his neglectfully murderous father or the immigrant laborers his father exploited. Without sermonizing, the movie attacked the economic climate that forced such a grave moral decision on someone so young. Morals, like dancing, are a luxury for Rosetta, who’s starving without a job. Yet after she commits a sickening but coldly practical act of betrayal, she feels even more destitute without them.
Rosetta was roundly bashed after the film and lead actress Dequenne took top honors at Cannes last year. It was too grim, griped the same blurb whores who complained that The Phantom Menace wasn’t showing. The camera shook too much. Too much hand-wringing about a bunch of lower-class Belgians. (As if the situations in the movie weren’t equally applicable to America, starting with the exploitation of part-time workers.) The stupidest complaint was that Dequenne gives a one-note performance. Which note would that bethe unguarded smile she flashes when Riquet tries a clumsy handstand, or her heartbreaking remorse in the final scene, when she’s given a miraculous glimpse of compassion without precedent in her short life?
The first time I saw Rosetta, the details that struck me most concerned money: how much the Dardennes concentrate on transactions, and the cost of everything from rent to a bottle of gas. The last time, though, what stood out most, of all things, was the Dardennes’ emphasis on the waffles. To the people buying them, the confections are instantly consumable, disposable, the complete opposite of a necessity. To the people making them, howeverwho can ill afford to eat themthey’re a last preserve of dignity: an affirmation that they still have a tenuous foothold in the economy. In a subtly devastating moment, Riquet asks the sullen, calculating girl why she hangs around the waffle stand, hoping she’s waiting to see him. He misinterprets her barely audible reply: ”Just to look at you working.“
Nobody’s going to mistake Steven Soderbergh’s new film Erin Brockovich for any of his other movies. For the last five years, the man who came to prominence with sex, lies and videotape has been reinventing the crime genre in The Underneath, Out of Sight, and last year’s miraculous The Limey. Erin Brockovich is a complete change of pace: a straightforward legal thriller.
Or is it? Sure, the current film demonstrates very few of the experiments in time and montage that have been building in Soderbergh’s work since 1995. The story it tells is adapted from reality, and for the most part it has reality’s uncomplicated time sequence. But it’s hardly a legal thriller in the same sense as Presumed Innocent or A Civil Action. Soderbergh seems to be filming the story of the eponymous protagonista single mother with no marketable skills and the fashion sense of a Sunset Boulevard streetwalkeras much for her personal life as for the landmark toxic waste case she helped win. The movie’s comic moments far outnumber its shouting matches or tense standoffs. And there’s no courtroom scenein fact, the final decision in the case isn’t even shown onscreen. If this is a straightforward legal thriller, it’s a darn strange one.
The public will see Erin Brockovich as a Julia Roberts movie rather than a Steven Soderbergh movie, and that’s how Soderbergh presents it. As Erin tough-talks her way into a job at a low-rent law firm, then almost single-handedly tracks down the evidence that Pacific Gas and Electric poisoned the people of Hinkley, Calif., Soderbergh never tires of filming Roberts (and her Wonder-Bra). While cleavage is constantly on display, however, it’s a telling character detail rather than a raison d’être for the film.
The element of the director’s recent work that is most evidently on display here is his way with actors. Roberts walks the thin line between her movie stardom and the can’t-catch-a-break Brockovich without a false step, even in Brockovich’s three-inch Candies. Her personal energy drives every scene, but it’s the tension between the character (who isn’t taken seriously because she looks like Julia Roberts) and Roberts herself (who sometimes has the same problem) that drives Soderbergh.
In what usually would be the boring personal subplot, Soderbergh gives us the enormously appealing Aaron Eckhart, an actor who emerged as the consummate jerk in Neil Labute’s In the Company of Men. Here he plays ponytailed, bewhiskered George, the biker who moves in next door to Erin and tries to redeem her faith in men by baby-sitting her three kids while she pursues the PG&E case. There’s still a touch of the conventional in this side of the film, especially when George threatens to leave because Erin’s always working. Notice the gender inversion, though; the whole scene plays like a negative image of the usual confrontation between neglected wife and workaholic father. Albert Finney, as Erin’s lawyer boss Ed Masry, is equally fun as a stuffed shirt and as a man who secretly delights in his employee’s tactless, tasteless methods.
But without Roberts’ performance, all those ancillary delights would be so much sugar frosting on a cardboard cake. Her delight in her baby’s unscripted words, her frustration at not fitting in with ”the girls“ at the office, and her passion for her workher nearly egoistic pride of ownershipall seem as spontaneous, fresh, and real as if she just had Richard Gere slam a jewelry box shut on her fingers. For as much as Soderbergh layers technique on top of his actors until their performances seem chopped to bits, the real effect has always been to make us look deeper into their eyes to discover the secret thread holding it all together. Here the director uses the technique sparingly, and whaddya knowwe’re still riveted.
Like Neil Jordan and Michael Apted, Soderbergh has been alternating big-budget, big-studio pictures with more personal projects. Erin Brockovich is the former, following up on the success Universal had with Out of Sight. But unlike Jordan and Apted, Soderbergh has managed to maintain control over his Hollywood work so that what gets on the screen doesn’t look like hackery and never looks like everything else. Out of Sight had more than a few glimpses of his dazzling, intimate montage; Erin Brockovich has his signature earth-toned, high-desert palette. But there’s always much more to the films than the application of Soderbergh’s craft to the story he got assigned. Someday he may be remembered in the same way we remember Michael Curtiz: an endlessly inventive eye, presenting stories to the audience in beautiful, accessible, exciting visions, making some of the greatest movies of his time.
The title of Agnieszka Holland’s film The Third Miracle refers to the traditional criteria for sainthood in the Catholic church: Two provable miracles are standard, a third is preferred, and the candidate must exemplify the sort of virtue that God would require of one of His messengers. In Richard Vetere’s novel, adapted for the screen by Vetere and John Romano, the candidate in question is a Chicago woman named Helen O’Regan, who immigrated from an unknown European village after World War II, and who dedicated her later years to working with children. Upon her death, on the day of her funeral, a statue at Helen’s church begins to cry tears of blood, which fall upon one of Helen’s favorite little girls, mysteriously ridding the child of a previously incurable case of lupus.
The marvelous Ed Harris stars in The Third Miracle as Father Frank Shore, a church postulator who investigates potential candidates for canonization, to decide if their case is worthy of consideration by the Vatican. Frank’s job requires him to be a skeptic, and years of disproving the touch of the divine has left the priest’s own faith shaken. The protagonist’s troubled souland his reluctance to investigate what he’s sure will be another depressing casegives The Third Miracle a noir-like quality. As with the best grim detective stories, our hero is really investigating himself; but where a crime-based noir film would have the lead character study a murder to see his own potential for evil, this faith-based noir film sees Father Frank fortify his own beliefs by looking at the commitment of others.
The Polish-born Holland brings the same European sensibility to The Third Miracle that she did to her previous noteworthy English-language films, The Secret Garden and Washington Square. She’s interested in quiet scenes of interaction between characters, as in Frank’s almost romantic interludes with Helen’s daughter, played by Anne Heche. But she’s not afraid to heighten conflict to near-hysteria, as she does in Frank’s arguments with his venal Bishop, played by Charles Haid, or with the pompous Vatican investigator, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl.
The director’s greatest contribution to The Third Miracle, though, is the imagery of planes and birds that she floats throughout the film. Vetere’s story is not just about faith in the abstract, but about seeing the divine inherent in the commonplacea track that the Catholic authorities worry will lead to worship of false idols. Holland and Vetere openly raise the question of whether the Holy Spirit dwells in manmade objects as well as biological entities; whether the fear of offending God has led us to miss His active presence in our daily lives. It’s the same selective blindness that allows the priests in this thoughtful, non-sensationalist film to see Helen’s two possible miracles but to miss her third. Luckily, we in the audience get to see it, in the light that comes on in Ed Harris’ eyes, as his Father Frank rediscovers what his vows really mean.
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Wonderful! We're hoping Knoxville puts something like this together, too. It's a fantastic concept!!