DEATH BY MISCASTING
If you get your kicks from watching fine performers like Sigourney Weaver, Stuart Wilson and Ben Kingsley attempting to overcome the perils of miscasting, then Roman Polanski’s clumsy Death and the Maiden is a must. Usually revenge pictures have been about victims hunting down their Nazi victimizers or, as TV trauma dramas, the raped and violated going after the perps. But with increasing awareness of former and currently installed fascist South American governments having engaged in widespread terrorism, authors and moviemakers have been churning out like clockwork one treatise after another about human rights abuses. “An unnamed South American country, after the fall of its dictatorship” opens Death and the Maiden—not unlike the coded openings of Missing, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Jacabo Timerman: Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, The Plague and The House of the Spirits. While all these movies suffer varying degrees of miscasting, you can’t easily walk away unmoved by the horror coupling them and made definitive by Kingsley’s disclosure in Maiden—actually liking what he did, the prime desideratum in fascism. Did playwright Ariel Dorfman see the play Extremities and decide it would be the structure for Maiden? If not, maybe Polanski saw the movie version because Sigourney Weaver is doing Farrah Fawcett. Edgy from retributive high, Weaver doesn’t whine her wails, as is Fawcett’s irritating wont, but neither is she as effective nor as physically convincing. Bad enough she belies her character’s paranoia not only through terrible misreadings—no crackling tension, no real hate-from-the-soul—she hasn’t any anxiety-induced weariness, either. Worse is being so overpoweringly healthy-looking, towering over Kingsley, even when he gains the advantage, she subjects the disparities in physiques to laughs from an audience begging for relief. Fascism is on the rise again and partly to blame are movies like this from liberals and progressives who refrain from dealing with the virus the same way it deals with victims. Vegetating is gateway to surrender.
Luis Puenzo’s movie of Albert Camus’s The Plague (elsewhere La Peste) is more watchable than you feared it wouldn’t be, considering the subject matter—a killer pestilence as metaphor for Fascism—is a depressive. (It’s depressing in Missing, Death and the Maiden, “Jacabo Timerman” and Kiss of the Spider Woman too.) Puenzo took William Hurt and Raul Julia—fascism’s victims in Spider Woman—and put them in a real Buenos Aries this time, though the locale is set in “Oran, South America 199-.” Hurt is the doctor never too overwhelmed by the fever’s deadly spread to refuse himself the chance to criticize the officials’ brutal martial law or the Church’s supercilious dispensing of worthless pities. Trapped by the quarantine, Jean-Marc Barr and Sandrine Bonnaire are a French news team who pay driver Julia to smuggle out their videos. The actors, including Robert Duvall (looking a bit like Lenin), are excellent, and Hurt has at least two scenes—his agony over the death of a young choir boy and at the climax, when he has to tell the man dying in his arms there’s no chance for survival—that are among the most moving moments of his career. (And he handles an unexpected come-on with sticky dignity.) Puenzo isn’t afraid of Camusian literacy—his screenplay is loaded with elegant, reverberative dialogue—and, in a very daring bit of confession, he directs a Xmas Eve tango as an expression of fascism. (A long awaited confirmation for those who have sensed the dance as more than a national rite of sexual dramaturgy.) Through Felix Monti’s lense, Buenos Aires is amber in color and gloomily Viennese. Some of the music has a Hildegard Von Bingen affectation. As the plague’s infectiousness recedes and Oran’s populace celebrates, Julia warns “it will always come back.”
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER (Revised 5/2022) All Rights Reserved.