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Pioneers & Players
by Howard Schumann

According to the ancient Hindu Laws of Manu: a wife has only three options upon the death of her husband: She must burn with his remains, remarry his younger brother, or live the remainder of her life in self-denial. The third film in a trilogy that explores religious hypocrisy, Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta's Water is an eloquent protest against the maltreatment of Indian widows, some as young as seven years old, who are condemned to live a life of penitence and deprivation. The shooting of Water in India was interrupted in 2000 by Hindu fundamentalists who staged protests, destroyed sets, and forced the production to shut down and move to Sri Lanka .

Set in India in 1938 along the River Ganges, Water chronicles the lives of several widows against the backdrop of the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi and his non-violent campaign for liberation. Recently widowed 8-year old Chuyia, played by the outstanding Sri Lankan actress Sarala, is sent by her family to a house for widows where her head is shaved and she must wear a white sari to let others know of her status. Chuyia meets the overbearing Madhumati (Manorma), the "mother" figure who raises money for the ashram by sending young girls across the River Ganges to be prostitutes. She is gently opposed by Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) who tries to protect the girls without openly denying the traditions.

Kalyani (Lisa Ray) is one of the girls used by Madhumati but she still manages to maintain a youthful innocence and beauty. Chuyia and Kalyani become friends and while walking in the village, accidentally meet Narayana, a young law student (John Abraham) who is active in the movement for Indian liberation. He fiercely opposes the hypocrisy involved in isolating widows and condemning them as untouchables. He tells Kalyani that the issue is one not of religion but of money: "One less mouth to feed", he says, "four less saris, and a free corner in the house. Disguised as religion, it's just about money," Narayana and Kalyani fall in love and he asks her to marry him in spite of the opposition of his family and society, a situation that leads to unfortunate consequences.

In Water , Mehta employs the humanist tradition of Satyajit Ray with expressive Indian music enhancing the emotions of the characters, but also bodily lifts the character of Auntie from Pather Panchali and the movie struggles for an original style. While Water is beautiful to look at and embodies an important message, it is ultimately defeated by a very conventional style, a clichéd and manipulative plot, and some larger than life characters who never come alive as real human beings.

I'm not usually drawn to "feel-good" entertainment, not because I like to feel bad but because so often these films are pedestrian, manipulative, and without charm. Anthony Hopkins' performance, however, as Burt Munro in Roger Donaldson's The World's Fastest Indian lifts the film to a different level and, though we may have seen movies in this genre many times before, the result is irresistible. For those who never heard of Burt Munro, he was the eccentric 68-year old New Zealand cyclist who set the land speed record at Bonneville Flats, Utah of 201 mph in 1967, a record that still stands today. The World's Fastest Indian is not only good family entertainment (perish the thought), but has a spiritual message about the power of intention to create support in our life.

Hopkins portrays Munro as a charming rogue whose greatest asset was his enthusiasm and determination. Munro dreamed about being able to compete in a race to determine the world's fastest motorcycle for twenty-five years and the film chronicles his unrelenting pursuit of that goal. Hopkins turns in one of his best performances in years, captivating us with his Kiwi accent and his sly laugh, the personification of the ordinary man fighting the system for overdo recognition. His instrument of choice was a modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle that he spent his years in Invercargill , New Zealand tinkering with and honing to perfection. The cycle had been scraped together with hinges from a kitchen door and a cork from a whisky bottle and with the tread of its tires carefully sliced off with a knife it hardly looked like it could go around the block much less set a speed record.

When we first meet Burt, he is an old man who lives alone and regularly comes into conflict with his neighbors for racing his motorcycle engine in the early morning and totally neglecting the condition of his lawn. His best friend is the neighbor's little boy (Aaron Murphy), a captivating redhead, who is fascinated with the ancient machine and loves to talk with Burt about his plans for the big race. Suffering from money problems as well as heart and prostrate trouble, neither Munro nor the old Indian Scout bike seem to be in any shape for an arduous journey, let alone to race for a record. Thanks to the help of a local club and a friendly bank, however, he is able to raise enough to cover most of the trip but has to pay his passage over by working aboard ship as a cook and dishwasher.

Once in America , Burt meets some "colorful" characters and here the film sags a bit with some well-worn stereotypes. In Hollywood , he is assisted by a transvestite hotel clerk (Chris Williams), a Hispanic used car salesman (Paul Rodriguez), and, along the road, a soldier on leave from Vietnam , a native Indian who has the right cure for his prostate problem, and a widow (Diane Ladd) who has the right cure for his nighttime urges. Donaldson also depicts cops who graciously do not cite him for speeding on a vehicle without license plates. When Burt gets to Bonneville, he must use all the power of his strong intention even to qualify as he failed to pre-register and his cycle does not meet minimum technical standards. Another savior comes to his aid here as an American racer played by Chris Lawford, the lookalike son of actor Peter Lawford, pulls his weight with the officials and Munro is allowed to compete. Even though we know the outcome, the racing sequences at Bonneville are exhilarating.

While The World's Fastest Indian sounds like a typical formula exercise of the underdog fighting for glory against heavy obstacles, the film is too smart, the people too real, and Hopkins too charming to fall into that trap. The film promotes some very welcome ideas: that the power of our intention can transform our life, that there may be some goodness still left in people, and that old age can be a time of possibility, not a time to throw in the towel. This is a warm, charming, and yes I'll say the "s" word, sentimental film that will not appeal to the action-oriented multiplex crowd or those who find it chic to be cynical but it may appeal to those who simply enjoy well made entertainment that actually delivers on its promise of making us feel good. Kudos to Donaldson, Hopkins, and, of course, to Burt Munro.

Tom Seyr (Romain Duris) is a nattily dressed 28-year old Parisian real estate debt enforcer who works for his father (Niels Arestrup), a sleazy housing profiteer. Seyr and his low-life buddies, Fabrice (Jonathan Zacca) and Sami (Gilles Cohen), acquire property for resale at a profit, making certain by any means necessary including violence that all squatters are removed. When a chance encounter opens the possibility for the opportunity for Tom to become a concert pianist like his mother, he finds that breaking away from his past is not so easy. Winner of eight César awards including best film and best director, Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped is a loose remake of James Toback Fingers starring Harvey Keitel. In Fingers , Keitel plays the son of a gangster and a concert pianist who is torn between the efficiency of his father's profession and the passion of his deceased mother.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped is shot with dark colors to create a mood of foreboding. It is not all atmosphere, however. Audiard uses disorienting jump cuts, bizarre camera angles, and a hand-held camera close to the character's anatomy to create a frenetic pace and energy to spare. Romain Duris, a young French actor loaded with talent and charisma, plays the tightly wound Seyr with manic intensity. He is an operator on the lowest level, beating up restaurant proprietors that are delinquent in their bills and unleashing rats in a tenement to drive out the squatters. He seems to relish the jobs he is asked to do but still dreams of becoming a concert pianist. When he runs into his mother's former concert manager, (Sandy Whitelaw) he asks for the opportunity for an audition, then engages a petite Chinese piano teacher Miao Lin (Linh-Dan Pham) to assess his abilities. Since he does not speak Chinese and she does not speak French, the film could have been called Read My Lips II.

Miao is a civilizing influence and tries to stop Seyr from attacking the piano as if he was clubbing a tenant behind in his rent but cannot put a lid on his temperament. Their relationship develops slowly but erupts as both explode in frustration at his inability to follow instructions or master Bach's Toccata. To make life even more complicated, he is having an affair with his best friend's wife, and also brazenly seduces a mobster's girlfriend. While continuing to develop his artistic sensibility, Seyr carries out his father's suggestions to "take care" of recalcitrant payees, presumably out of love or guilt or both. He is very protective of his father and does not refuse his requests, though he has little respect for him, telling him that the woman he is thinking of marrying is a whore.

When Seyr agrees to take on Minskov (Anton Yakovlev), a Russian Mafia boss who does not keep his promises, it is clear that he is in over his head and he begins to rethink his relationship with his father. Audiard captures the character's nervous intensity and brings the macho sub-culture of Paris to life, yet the film lacks any semblance of warmth. The Beat That My Heart Skipped is about choices and the willingness to change our direction in life and we relate to Seyr's struggle with different sides of his personality. While Duris' performance rings with a fundamental honesty, I found it difficult to locate a common humanity with this dark, shady man. His cold, abrasive personality and the film's gratuitous violence make this portrait of the artist as a young hoodlum difficult to embrace. Somehow thuggery against poor people and the humanity of Beethoven or Mozart seem incompatible. While there is a lot to admire here, for me it is a film that my heart skipped.

©2006 Howard Schumann

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