Volume 4, Number 52
This Week's Reviews: Catch Me If You Can, The Decalogue.
This Week's Omissions: Empire, Pinocchio.
Repertory Review: Vagabond.
|Catch Me If You Can
BY: DAVID PERRY
From 1963 to 1969, Frank Abagnale, Jr., jumped from plane to plane impersonating airline pilots and using the infallible jump seats that airline ticket personnel were want to give to whatever pilot wanted a free ride. Abagnale, who honed his pilot impersonation through a series of lucky breaks, was able to get anything he wanted from the naïve people he worked with -- before long, he's was having sex with stewardesses and cashing Pan Am checks.
Abagnale would soon settle himself into single settings and jobs -- a Los Angeles stockbroker, a Utah college professor, a Miami hospital pediatrician, and a New Orleans assistant prosecutor -- finding it incredibly easy to forge a series of checks that would net upwards of $2.5 million. Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can adapts this story (from Abagnale's autobiography co-written with Stan Redding) into a sprite, fast-paced, and enjoyable little feature. It comes on the heels of his Minority Report and Leonardo DiCaprio's Gangs of New York, both of which were the antithesis of this film, with their bleak, epic look and violence-driven narratives.
In the film, Abagnale (DiCaprio) is treated to a little psychological therapy, as screenwriter Jeff Nathanson attempts to connect Abagnale's two-faced lifestyle as the byproduct of his parents' divorce. Little of this works, but it does allow the film to increase the importance of Frank Abagnale, Sr., (Walken) to the story. Abagnale, in fact, made very little reference to his parents' problems as pushing him into the white-collar crimes he perpetrated.
By doing this, though, Spielberg and Nathanson can delve into his protagonist's mental state, something that the real Abagnale understandably refrained from doing in his autobiography. There's a certain beauty to the way that they introduce a character, FBI fraud investigator Carl Hanratty (Hanks), to the story to create both a Javert-like obsessive chase and a father-like doting concern. The strongest thing the film has to offer is the parallel that the actual story lacked: that Abagnale, Sr., and Hanratty are, to a point, the paternal figures who provoke everything that Abagnale, Jr., did.
As Hanratty makes clear in the film's subtly charming final act, Abagnale's decisions were first caused by a need to resurrect his father's lost masculitinity in the face of IRS-initiated business failure and the void left by his beloved wife Paula (Baye), but later were also motivated by the chase that ensued. In the gamesmanship with which Abagnale escapes the FBI is a clear illustration of his youthfulness: all of his crimes were committed before his 19th birthday.
Spielberg directs the feature with a zeal unseen in his recent dramatic work. There's an adventurousness in the film akin to Jurassic Park and the Indiana Jones trilogy, but also a slight-of-hand gracefulness to the drama within that hasn't been seen since his first feature, 1974's The Sugarland Express.
His repertory clan of filmmakers helps to give the film the needed speed and control that evolves Abagnale's story into a feature worthy of Spielberg's name value. Janusz Kaminski's sun drenched cinematography work perfectly with the '60's faux sets of Jeanine Oppewall. Michael Kahn's zippy editing moves the film through five or six years of story with a speed that astonishes -- it is a film that seems an hour shorter than its 140-minute length. And John Williams delivers a terrific jazz score that reminds the audience of his ability to sometimes veer off of the autopilot composing that has hampered his name worth (but still upped his Oscar nomination count).
Tom Hanks perfectly revives his Saving Private Ryan character, moving touches of him into the character of Carl Hanratty. His is a demanding performance in that he has to show himself as loving towards the man he's trying to apprehend. There's a charm to the way the two play off each other (even if the film's Christmas Eve phone call running gag becomes a push) helps to emphasize the loneliness within the men. You get the impression that, in both apprehender and the apprehended, they get the feeling that they are the only ones caring about each other.
Leonardo DiCaprio, who was overshadowed by Martin Scorsese's more lively production in Gangs of New York, brings an air of innocence to Abagnale that helps to create the youthfulness of the character and the charm with which he was able to pull of so many frauds. DiCaprio has been the unfortunate victim of anti-celebrity criticism (especially at the hands of males angered over his ability to leave women swooning), always failing to note his charisma that captivates the audience. It's apparent here more than in any other performance, but, then again, that was the case with the real Frank Abagnale.
Catch Me If You Can seems to thrive on the same
magnetism of its star and subject. While the film is not a clear-cut success at all
levels, it shows a pride in its self so commanding that it becomes impossible to not be
beguiled by its allure. Owing much of the draw (as well as the opportune setting) to the
early James Bond films (at one point in the film, Abagnale is spotting in a theatre
watching Goldfinger), it meets the challenges of intoxicating the audience with
its free-form vanity and the thrill-seeking, naïve child within.
BY: DAVID PERRY
Krzysztof Kieslowski is best known in America because of his Trois Colours films, Blue, White, and Red, the last of which brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Director in 1995. Up to that time, Kieslowski never saw any American national embrace for his work. The country had never acknowledged Polish cinema to be of worth other than films by Andrzej Wajda and Kieslowski would posthumously become the first conduit between Western art cinema and the Polish film community.
And yet Kieslowski had been a common name among cineastes thanks to both the Trois Colours trilogy and his 1991 Cannes sensation The Double Life of Veronique. While those films all helped to make him into one of the most appealing filmmakers found in the rubble of the Soviet bloc, one title become the Holy Grail of filmgoing wish lists. The Decalogue, Kieslowski and co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz's massive attempt to compare modern living to the Ten Commandments, had shown on Polish TV in 1988 but wasn't distributed in America out of issues with distributors.
2000 would herald one of the great occasions in American cinematic distribution history. After more than a decade of waiting, people who had not been able to make the pair of Lincoln Center showings would finally see the national release of Kieslowski's masterpiece. Nearly 10 hours in length, it's amazing to consider that people still stood in line to attend showings in Middle America. Kieslowski, who had been dead for five years, was once again en vogue -- for a film he made twelve years earlier.
The most significant fact that arises from this is that the mystery of The Decalogue was, without a doubt, one of the most enchanting of all the long dormant gifts kept from American audiences. It is an engrossing work of astonishing weight, a film that goes further, deeper than any other contemporary film -- unquestionably, it was worth the wait.
Created as an episodic anthological work, the film offers ten independent stories that can be watched in any order and do not need any preparations from earlier segments. Watching the film this way does bring a few problems, though, including the fact that some viewers might miss some of the common themes and ideas that can be found throughout the complete work. It is testament to the film's worth that each story is a flawless work of hour-long filmmaking, and that each hour accumulates to a work beyond comprehension in its magnificence.
In Decalogue 1, "I Am the Lord Thy God," Krzysztof (Baranowski), a single father living in the Warsaw apartment complex that will be seen in every segment, must come to terms with his loss of his Catholic religion and his faith in modernity. Inside the apartment he shares with his intelligent 11-year-old son Pawel (Klata), is an assortment of gadgets and computers that they use to make their lives easier. Instead of raising Pawel to have some religious morality, Krzysztof has decided to encourage the kid's reliance on the computers that have made their life easier.
Krzysztof's sister Irena (Komorowska), a devoted Catholic, fears this is leaving the kid without any real principled view of the world. Even when the kid begins to question life and death, Krzysztof's answer is devoid of any emotion, only looking at the science of life, not the intangible questions that allow for philosophical beliefs.
It is Krzysztof's blind trust in technology that brings tragedy and brings to light the problems inherent in refraining from placing confidence in a deity. However, Kieslowski doesn't care to leave this as a one-sided indictment of the non-believers. Even as he questions the sanctity of believing, he shows that Irena's blind belief is no more comforting than the rekindling going through Krzysztof.
This section, the best of the series, confronts issues of religion and the abilities of man to serve as his own savior. Krzysztof has brought Pawel to believing in science and technology without any interest in God's will and pays the price for it. While Kieslowski chooses not to evoke God as the most important part of man's journey, he is challenging man's blind faith, whether it be in the Bible or a personal computer.
In Decalogue 2, "Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of Thy Lord God in Vain," a Warsaw doctor (Bardini) is plagued with the ability he has to play God. Normally, this would only involve a doctor's ability to bring someone to life, but in this case the doctor can choose who dies and who survives. While watching over the people who fill the place with their ailments (the decrepit look of the hospital is reminiscent of all the reports of the horrid conditions in Soviet socialized health care), one particular patient, Andrzej (Lukaszewicz), is considered by the kindly doctor to be nearing death.
But he has a small problem: the doctor's profession says that he must do his best to rehabilitate Andrzej but the patient's wife Dorota (Janda) has made it clear that Andrzej's survival will mean the death of someone else. During his hospitalization, Dorota began an affair with one of her coworkers in the Warsaw Orchestra and was impregnated. If Andrzej dies, Dorota can go on with her life with a new husband and a child; if he survives, she must abort the baby to ensure that he won't learn of her infidelity. Dorota seems to be saying to the doctor in her badgering pleas, "Who would you rather save?"
Once again Kieslowski confronts the relationship between man's life decisions and the will of a god. This time, however, its not blind faith but willing intervention that pains the characters of The Decalogue. Dorota, in this instance, seems to be the person taking God's place in vain, trying to find answers in the hands of men, both through the doctor taking care of her husband and the doctor who might perform her abortion. The director, a godlike character himself, is posing the question of man's own ability to change life and whether it is truly responsible of the peons of this world to play with the work of their creator.
In Decalogue 3, "Honor the Sabbath Day," Janusz (Olbrychski) spends his Christmas Eve helping an old girlfriend, Ewa (Pakulnis), try to find her husband roaming about Warsaw. The central conceit, which is clear to the audience from the beginning, is that Ewa set all this up in hopes of rekindling something with Janusz. She is the one who leaves her husbands car sitting in a median, but that isn't important if she can get her hands back on Janusz.
Their relationship came to an end three years earlier when her husband caught them together and she chose to continue her life with him instead of Janusz. Now Janusz has found happiness married to another woman (Szczepkowska) and Ewa is left lonely on Christmas Eve. But, if he is so happy, why is he willing to spend an evening -- Christmas Eve, no less -- with a women he had long considered to be in the past?
The closeness to the actual commandment is cosmetic, placing the setting on what could be considered a Sabbath Day. However, the real purpose of the third section is to look at the way temptation can be dormant but never really dissipates. Janusz could have continued his happy life without ever seeing Ewa again, but based on the way he shrugs them off at her calling on this night, it's easy to believe that he's thought of her every night as he climbs into bed with his wife.
In Decalogue 4, "Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother," Anka (Biedrzynska) is a teenager who has lived her life under the loving watch of her father Michal (Gajos). Since her mother died just days after Anka's birth, Michal has been everything to the young girl in her development as a person. He is her friend, confidante, and playmate -- their rapport is like that of a loving couple.
When Michal goes on a business trip, Anka happens upon a letter in his desk. Curious as to what is in this envelope, which says it shouldn't be opened until Michal's death, Anka spends days trying to decide whether or not she should devy the request and read the enclosed document. Meanwhile, her mind begins to consider what exactly is in there.
Kieslowski introduces the characters in their most playful modes, without any inkling of their actual familial relationship. In these early moments, the audience begins to believe that this is little more than a May-December relationship and that we are privy to one of their most playful moments. While it is very close to its commandment (arguably the closest any section gets), this is not clearly apparent at the beginning (Kieslowski does not actually give the wording of the commandments before each segment). This is part of the reason that Anka's imaginings of a new relationship with her father seems almost acceptable and that Michal's reaction is perfectly, naturally, and beautifully told.
In Decalogue 5, "Thou Shalt Not Kill," a taxi driver (Tesarz) goes about his day driving listlessly through Warsaw to make a living wage. Meanwhile, a rural youth, Jacek (Baka), walks his own path through the city, where he finds the uneasiness of people to help his lower-class lifestyle. With slow, grinding intensity, Kieslowski establishes two completely unlikable characters and their fateful deaths.
The moral of the story in this segment, which was released as A Short Film About Killing before the American release of The Decalogue, comes clearly questioning murder altogether, whether it is unmotivated or punishing. Both men are shown as disparate people living disparate lives and their deaths, considering their low places on the socioeconomic scale, should be of negligible impact. And yet their deaths are disturbing -- the first because of the heinous way it is performed and the second because of the very acceptance it brings. The third character of the story, a lawyer (Globisz) pleading the case against the death penalty, gets the best moments in the section. In the final scene, his attitude is shared by those watching.
In Decalogue 6, "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery," Tomek (Lubaszenko) spends his spare time coveting the promiscuous woman who lives across the apartment complex courtyard. Every night, his godmother (Iwinska) leaves him alone as he sits looking at Magda (Szapolowska) and her parade of lovers. At first, all he does is watch through her window with a telescope; later Tomek begins plots to get closer to Magda, first by bringing her to his post office desk with fake money orders and then taking the job delivering milk to her apartment.
When Magda is finally told about the voyeuristic cravings going on across from her apartment, she becomes fixated with teaching Tomek that there is no love, only sex. But, by doing this, she hurts Tomek and finds something long dormant within herself. Kieslowski's film comes with a disdainfulness during its first 45 minutes that seems closer to the romantic cynic's commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Love." However, this section shows more heart that any of the other sections by having a willingness to glare within the stereotypes its nearly perpetuating. It's an amazing look at the realities of love (like the previous section, this one was released by itself as A Short Film About Love) and the fleeting ideas of obsession.
In Decalogue 7, "Thou Shalt Not Steal," Majka (Barelkowska) has been expelled from a university and must find a new route for her life. She lives with her mother Ewa (Polony), father, and 6-year-old sister Ania (Piwowarczyk) in the Warsaw apartment complex, continually becoming distraught over the way Ewa dotes over Ania. After finishing all her university business and preparing to make a run for it, she sneaks into a school program and kidnaps Ania.
But the thievery that Majka performs is not as clear-cut as it may seem. As she takes Ania to the home of the child's real father, schoolteacher Wojtek (Linda), it becomes clear: Majka is Ania's real mother. While Ewa is ready to call her daughter the bandit, Kieslowski is asking the audience to consider that Ewa, who has taken Ania and wants the child to never know her real past, is the real thief.
This section of the film poses some of the more engaging questions and adorns the screen with characters of such richness that their plight becomes engrossing for the audience. Though this is not as fulfilling as some of the other sections (namely 1, 5, and 6), Decalogue 7 does deliver some of the finest performances and the most destitute plotting that can be found in the entire work.
In Decalogue 8, "Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness," university professor Zofia (Koscialkowska) goes through her daily lecture, which is more of a series of ethical question than any academic grandstanding. On this day, an American literary translator, Elzbieta (Marczewska), sits in on the discussion in hopes of better understanding the person she has long written about.
First the ethical question is a reiteration of the story dealt with in Decalogue 2, leaving Zofia to comment that there is little more important in the world than a child. In response, Elzbieta feels the need to bring her own story to the fore: in 1943, a Catholic couple in Warsaw promises to hide a Jewish child from the Nazis but turn on their pledge at the last minute. Why would someone do this to a child who would surely die if not brought in by the couple?
It is clear that the story is that of Zofia and that the child was Elzbieta. What's not clear, though, is what provoked these questions. Did Elzbieta come to confront Zofia or to just understand who she was? Would she have spoken up if Zofia had not commented on the sanctity of a child's life? This section deals with some of the work's weightiest issues and, unlike the others, is more historically minded than the underlying indictment of communism found in the rest of The Decalogue. Though it does plod along more than the others, it is still a commanding work -- the fact that it is the least of the series shows just how high the standards are set by the other episodes.
In Decalogue 9, "Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Wife," heart surgeon Roman (Machalica) is told that he will spend the rest of his young life without the ability to have sex. He is so distraught that he compromises his marriage by telling his wife Hanka (Blaszczyk) to take a lover. But when it looks like she has fallen into the arms of Mariusz (Jankowski), Roman goes into a jealous rage.
There are lies abound in this section, and, in many ways, it would be a better "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery" than Decalogue 6. But the most impressive way that Kieslowski works with this commandment is the way he humanizes all the characters, from the impotent tyrant to the young lover to the unfaithful wife.
In Decalogue 10, "Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Goods," brothers Jerzy (Stuhr), a white-collar businessman, and Artur (Zamachowski), a heavy metal rocker, come back together to take care of their estranged father's estate. Long distanced from his cold form of obsessive love, they find his apartment to be a mess built out of fear. Inside they find alarms, steel cabinets, and series of locks, all to take care of what they think is little more than a stamp collection.
Soon, after Jerzy's son trades off a few stamps, they find the worth of the collection, which could net them more money than love they ever received from their father. But, as they begin to work with the stamp dealing underground and its corrupt kingpin (Bista), they become increasingly suspicious of each other and susceptible to outsiders.
The final section of the work is the only real comedy within the assortment of human dramas found inside The Decalogue. There's so many moments of dark humor found here than the audience begins to understand that Kieslowski, despite wallowing in some grim stories in the previous 9 hours of The Decalogue, wants to let the audience have some escape from the destitution of life. Even if Decalogue 10 has some rather unhappy moments, it contains much more levity than can be found anywhere else in the complete saga. There's even a wink to the main story in this, the final section: these two men are obsessing over finishing off a stamp series that is far more valuable when completed.
Using different cinematographers throughout (with the exception of Piotr Sobocinski, who photographs Decalogue 3 and Decalogue 9), and a variety of storytelling styles, every section of The Decalogue has a life of its own. The complete work is spellbinding in its reach and its ability to keep the audience's interest for its 10-hour length (when viewed consecutively and with few breaks, The Decalogue seems like little more than 2 or 3 hours).
One of the finest touches within the film is Kieslowski's addition of a unifying character, a young vagabond played by Artur Barcis who can be found in nearly every section. His moments are always pivotal, showing segments in characters' stories that pose life questions. Often, his appearance means that the character is on the verge of their moral upswing or downfall. Soon his presence becomes enigmatic of his meaning: is he a guardian angel? God himself? Or, perhaps, Satan?
The Decalogue is filled with questions like this, ideas that challenge the audience to understand exactly what moral and social status in modern life has brought the Ten Commandments to such a meaning. If these are the realities of today's Commandments, what's this saying about our lives? Is the past really binding and is the future ever changeable?
It is notable to consider how much Kieslowski achieves in
just 10 hours. The riches that can be found in the movie could fill twice as much time
under the direction of someone with more resources and less inventiveness. Krzysztof
Kieslowski had made so few films when he died at the age of 54, but the impression that
comes after watching The Decalogue and Trois Colours is that he achieved
more in his short career than most people do in their full, long (and probably a little
BY: DAVID PERRY
[NOTE: Since this is more an analysis than a review of Vagabond, major plot points including the end are given away. It is recommended that it only be read after watching the film.]
"Alone, alone, all all alone, / alone on a wide wide
sea! / and never a saint took pity on / my soul in agony."
The first two images of Mona Bergeron (Bonnaire) in Vagabond conflict with each other, showing the changes found in a period time that probably is little more than a month. First, Mona is shown dead, frozen as she lies in a ditch. Her hair is tangled, her clothes are tattered, and her face is dirty. Even had she been alive -- and the rigor mortis not set in -- she would have been just as alarming. Within moments, though, Agnès Varda shows a completely different view of her protagonist. Now, some time earlier, Mona is emerging from the sea, clean, showing off her untainted naked body.
Significantly, only one of these moments comes with companionship: the beautiful Mona is seen from afar and alone, the dead Mona is closely looked at by police and farmhands. Though not the companionship she had been looking for, in death she gets the most attention she had received during her long journey.
Varda shows these moments with questions echoing in the minds of all the audience: the how, the why, and, most importantly, the who. Mona is established as an enigma, a person with no past, no real story -- her entire tale as told by Varda is one of peripheral acquaintances, many of whom pose the same questions: Mme Landier (Méril), who sends out a search for Mona in hopes of taking care of the hitchhiker, says regretfully "I'm worried for her, she's so alone. I should have done something. I don't even know her name").
In many ways, though, the character of Mona seems to welcome such anonymity -- in many cases, the most welcoming are the ones who most quickly scorn her, including Mme Landier and Yolande (Moreau; who has her own moment of worry over Mona: "I wonder what's happened to her. I don't even know where she's from"). In the occasions when people are able to reach some sort of emotional connection to Mona, she becomes the scorner, running off with whatever she can grab during the escape. She has set her ways as a vagabond and, as the goat herder who tries to give her stability through work, Mona is not ready to leave the life of a vagabond.
As Sandy Flitterman states in "The 'Impossible Portrait' of Femininity: Vagabond" in her book To Desire Differently, part of the reason Varda's film is seen as such an achievement is her use of isolated scenes adhering to a "principal of disruption and interconnection" to help indicate the isolation within Mona's life.
The film consists of, by Flitterman's count, 66 sequences, all told independent of each other as a "fragmentary text." Building on the audience's knowledge of Mona from the beginning, these scenes offer a slow understanding of the person, with occasional connections being created between scenes. By the end, the audience knows about Mona, but does not really know Mona.
Vagabond, with its documentary style of
interviews and re-enactments, comes with a concurrent relationship to Varda's most recent
work, The Gleaners and I. In that film, Varda looked at the art of gleaning in
France, as people would walk through the near-barren fields to collect the goods left
behind. In many ways, Varda is doing exactly that in Vagabond: she has found the
decimated life of Mona and has attempted to collect the tangential stories surrounding
her. Mona has gone through her later life leaving little tracks and la glaneuse has come
along to put together the pieces.