CINEMA SIGNALS

. "The Man Who Cried"

This is about people whose lives were deeply affected by the events in Europe and Russia prior to the second world war. But a more melodramatic rendering of those lives and events would be hard to imagine. Resorting to a style of moviemaking that includes minimalist dialogue and a love for the pregnant look, for the enduring but speculative sigh, Sally Potter, who in 1997 gave us "Orlando", delivers another picture that sparkles and dims, sparkles and dims, only to repeat itself in a pattern of incomplete filmmaking.

We begin with a father and daughter gamboling in a pastoral setting outside a small village in Russia. The sequence is designed to demostrate the deep love that exists between the two, all the more poignant for the fact that daddy (Oleg Yankovsky) decides to leave the village for America where he'll be able to earn enough money to bring his destitute Jewish family over.

What with the face of the girl, little Fegele (later, Suzie) (Claudia Lander-Duke), clearly cast for utmost adorability, emitting a sense of loss that goes right to the heart and throat, Director/Writer Sally Potter goes for the emotional jugular and plays it and plays it for every ounce of empathy to be wrung from the situation. The face on her young actress is a prize of wordless communication which outlines the style of the principal character for the rest of the movie. Would that this child put words to the loss of her father so that we can understand her understanding of his virtual abandonment of his family.

Later, escaping the invasion forces of Hitler, Fegele manages to get on a ship bound for England, where she's given the Anglo-Saxon name of Suzie. As she demonstrates her singing talent for the prim English school in which she's an outsider, the story dissolves forward years later when we have the young adult Suzie, Christina Ricci. From then on, it's Ricci's story, as she continues her quest for a way to get to America and her long separated father in her bizzarely wordless way.

Enter Lola (Cate Blanchett) a flashy dancer looking for the good life in the arms of an adequately rich man. Lola takes a liking to Suzie, and shepherds her to Paris and into the chorus of the opera, a result of the kindness of the dashing and successful baritone, Dante Dominio (John Turturro). Lola's gifts of brazen self promotion soon have the girls performing onstage and doing special visual vignettes for the rich and famous, along with the gypsy horseman, Cesar (Johnny Depp).

Lola is soon living in the splendor she seeks as the concubine/girlfriend of the great Dominio, while little Suzie is falling for the dashing, mysterious Cesar, man of his people. But, all is not well as Hitler and his forces enter France...

Ricci plays this role almost as mutely as a silent film star, communicating with those very big eyes. Expressive as they are, one gets the strong impression that Sally Potter wrote it that way as a means to accomplish more soulful emoting than she could have by furnishing dialogue. It's certainly not devoid of emotion, but a little more spunkiness, of which Ricci is obviously capable, would have suggested a more embraceable character. Words have a way of losing out to melodrama in a Sally Potter piece.

Despite that, I think Ricci does more in this role to show herself as the full fledged woman she is, growing up from the child of "The Ice Storm", the teenage vixen of "Desert Blue" and the fantasy figure of "Sleepy Hollow". She has never been rendered more dynamically beautiful than when she appears in the theatrical tableau outside the palace. Wow. No wonder she did three films in 2000 and is slated for 3 more and a TV role in 2001. It's no phophecy that the demands on her time will continue.

Blanchett, effecting a Germanic accent and wily vamp personna, delights with her absolute reliability and fullness in every role she takes. Here she seems to be emulating the fabulous Dietrich. But it continues to be daunting to get her "Elizabeth" out of mind.

Depp is well rehearsed as a Gypsy, as though he just stepped off the set of "Chocolat". Whatever the preparation, he is just a great, sexy looking guy with a very believable gypsy ruggedness. The casting of Harry Dean Stanton as the jewish opera entrepreneur defies logic as well as any success with the role.

Turturro is in his element as the larger than life opera king aptly named Dominio. Dominate he does, as Turturro characteristically loves roles he can overfill. As he struts and frets about his positions on the stage, he fits well into Potter's design for maximum outpouring as though to fill the void left by her laconic star. And, oddly, it boosts the entertainment value in the production. He dashingly envelops the performance level of an opera star, convincing us that the voice, that of Salvatore Licitra, is his own.

Potter's fear of losing any opportunity for that telling moment, that opportunity to grip the heart and squeeze, leads to some very awkward editing and scene writing. Also mystifyingly awkward is the relationships between her characters which, at times, is as tenuous as it is unstated, as they are moved around by events more as marrionettes than sentient humans. Good as the individual players, we don't seem to get a handle on commitment between the characters and begin to wonder if we're really involved in their relationships. Even Suzie's overarching intention of getting to America to find her father is abandoned once she falls in love with Cesar -- even as German troops threaten her existence. She doesn't take serious the risk to a single Jewish girl in wartime France? Despite all this, however, the film has a strange hold on our fascination that can't be challenged.

Potter attempts to do very much by way of suggesting the destruction of war on what was obviously a shoestring budget. And, while this can be commended in one sense, the devices of sound effects and a jiggled camera are just enough to jar any modern filmgoer into suspending belief. The film subject of the late 30s doesn't make film insophistication of that period play very well to a new century digitally minded audience. She's mistaken to think that there should be a substitute for promoting a few extra hundred thousand dollars for enough production to convey the realities of that time in Europe.

Explaining the meaning of the title, "The Man Who Cried", would give away the ending of the story, so we'll avoid it. But, let it be said, it's a curious choice not inconsistent with other creative curiosities that result from Potter's aesthetic.

The photography, by the 82 year old Sacha Vierny ("Prospero's Books"), is very inconsistent with some of the worst lighting (in the small apartment "sets") and some contrastingly excellent to breathtaking work on view for most of the rest of the movie. A master cinematographer should not be blamed for this but, rather, low budget time pressures that force compromises. Unfair to him; unfair to us.

From a quality standpoint, this little film is full of ups and downs. The array of talent ensures the peaks while the lack of emotional restraint and very obvious budgetary limitations produces considerable awkwardness. Facing the question whether it's worth seeing, it is -- for this ensemble of performers if for no other reason and... if you can take the 20's melodrama and the other aforementioned forewarnings.

Rated O for Overwrought.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  




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