Sayles’ Compelling Characters Get Mired in His Despair

In the supposed gloom-and-doom atmosphere of the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival, it is hard to see how John Sayles’ Limbo was overlooked. Perhaps the jurors were torn between admiration and disappointment as I was.

For much of its running time Limbo seems to be soaring to a new peak of artistice xpression, then it suddenly gets bogged down in an irritating melodrama that seems designed to punish us for becoming attached to the characters and the milieu. As the movie peters out with an audience-bashing lady-or-the-tiger fadeout, I can’t help wondering what point, if any, Mr. Sayles is trying to make. On the other hand, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Strathairn and Vanessa Martinez would be hard to beat for acting awards-here or there.

I begin with the dumbfounding ending, partly because it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before from this generously humanistic storyteller whom I have long admired, and partly because, as an Aristotelian and a Christian, I believe too strongly in redemption, at least as it pertains to the protagonists of dramatic narratives, to tolerate the sin of despair to which Mr. Sayles has succumbed. A tragic flaw is one thing, but unwanted destruction by another’s malfeasance is simply lousy luck, and is an unworthy fate for the compelling characters Mr. Sayles has created with the invaluable help of his marvelous cast.

The setting is present-day Alaska, in which the hard-eyed natives mingle uneasily with the wide-eyed tourists. At first, the satiric tone is reminiscent of the old television series Northern Exposure , but with a harder edge. Mr. Sayles is too class-conscious to let the notion of Alaska as a theme park slip by without a derisive guffaw. Ms. Mastrantonio sings up a storm as Donna De Angelo, a much-traveled tavern singer who never quite made it either career-wise or multiple-husbands-wise. She is too old now even to hope for a big break, but she doesn’t want to give up the feeling she gets from putting a song over for an audience. Her daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) doesn’t make life any easier, with her sarcastic putdowns of her mother for messing up both their lives.

David Strathairn’s Joe Gastineau enters Donna’s life with a big monkey on his own back in the form of a nightmarish memory of a freak fishing boat accident in which two of his passengers drowned. One feels that Joe and Donna have actually met in the last chance saloon of life, and the odds are very much against them. Yet they proceed to give us unreasonable hope that they may overcome all their difficulties and misfortunes. But the past in the guise of two eventual nemeses named Smilin’ Jack (Kris Kristofferson) and Bobby Gastineau (Casey Siemaszko), Joe’s free-wheeling half-brother, comes back to haunt Joe as well as the unsuspecting Donna and Noelle.

As we get deeper and deeper into everyone’s character, the plight of Joe, Donna and Noelle becomes terminally desperate. I cannot remember another such movie in which such lovingly accomplished character development was poisoned by the writer-director’s despondent fatalism. Why? I ask because I do not know.

Dramatically Nonexistent Is Not a Genre

Bernardo Bertolucci’s Besieged , from a screenplay by Mr. Bertolucci and Clare Peploe, based on a story by James Lasdun, demonstrates the limitations of stylistic virtuosity in the service of a disarticulated narrative that is more affected than affecting. Mr. Bertolucci and his co-scenarist, Ms. Peploe, have attempted to cause two worlds to collide and coalesce by a series of undramatic nonconfrontations.

The protagonist Shandurai (Thandie Newton), the closest thing to a point-of-view character, is an African medical student in Rome who fled from her oppressed homeland after her husband was locked up in a military prison. To help pay her tuition, she works as a housekeeper in the home of an eccentric British concert pianist named Jason Kinsky (David Thewlis). This would be the stuff of Gothic romance if the ugly political realism of disheartening African-over-African tyranny did not intrude with what since Casablanca (1942) has been designated as the “hill of beans” mantra. In the past, Mr. Bertolucci has dabbled deviously and deliciously in the witch’s brew of politics and eroticism, but Besieged is singularly chaste, cold and cerebral in the context of the Bertoluccian oeuvre even before Last Tango in Paris (1972) pushed the envelope of simulated sexual provocation.

Besieged suffers from the malady of many recent marginally English-speaking international co-productions that replace character-building dialogue with a dazzling multiplicity of portentous camera angles. Unfortunately, though there is a degree of resolution in what little plot unfolds, there is very little action with which to test the strong, silent and strange characterizations. Ms. Newton is an appealing and sympathetic actress even when she is not loaded down with enough political correctness to carry a halo from one continent to another. How can there be any suspense with a character so cheerfully martyred? The only question is whether she will be canonized in this life or the next. As for Mr. Thewlis, he has little to do but look strange and slightly mysterious, which with his interestingly insolent and self-sufficient range of expressions he can manage without half-trying.

Still, Besieged is to be commended for the understated nobility of its characters, and for its unshaken belief in the viability of civilized behavior in the face of the world’s disorder. Shandurai and Kinsky take a long time getting to the point where they can let their defenses down long enough to utter the sweet words of love and commitment. Unfortunately, the reluctant lovers have long since drowned in an ocean of obliqueness. What ultimately washes up on the shore of the moviegoing architectural experience is a partial return to the angst associated with Michelangelo Antonioni long, long ago. The point is that a dry-as-dust endeavor like Besieged doesn’t get any points for being emotionally repressed and dramatically nonexistent. There is very little juicy mainstream left in moviemaking, only an assortment of tiny tributaries flowing into hit-or-miss, boom-or-bust outlets that attest to the end of both the studio system-despite an updated logo here and there-and the disappearance of a contented and complacent habit-forming audience. What, then, is Mr. Bertolucci trying to prove?

Defending Your Life in Japan

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life is a Japanese low-tech rendering of an intermediate step in the processing of the dearly departed. It seems that when we die we are marched into an architecturally nondescript facility, half low-grade hotel and half-primitive movie studio, where we are asked by a courteous and compassionate staff to select one memory from our past life to remember through all eternity to the exclusion of every other memory.

As I was watching the playing out of this conceit with my significant other, we both wracked our brains to no avail. One memory that supersedes all others? There is no such thing for us. As Sara Fishko, my ever skeptical hostess on my weekly radio ruminations about movies on WNYC and NPR, suggested, what the guardians at the gate of After Life are seeking is an endless array of Rosebuds to accompany Charles Foster Kane’s childhood sled into the Sweet Hereafter.

Still, After Life is not without a certain degree of stoical humor as it prepares to reproduce the chosen memories of its 22 applicants on videotape with the threadbare technical resources of a Japanese Ed Wood. As one memory after another is crudely simulated a merry metaphor for low-budget moviemaking is set into motion. Many of the chosen memories are heartbreakingly trivial as if many if not most lives are singularly unpleasant or unrewarding. Great emphasis is based on the details of touch and smell with each chosen remembrance. The remarkable patience and politeness of the Japanese national character is highlighted in this dire context. At times, I was reminded of a French Nazi concentration camp movie I saw long ago in which a Jewish prisoner politely allows a woman prisoner to precede him in entering the truck destined to take them both to the death camp. Some civilities never die. Perhaps, some spark of humanity persists through all eternity.

After Life ups the ante somewhat when halfway through the movie we learn that the afterlife hotel-studio staff itself is composed of earlier applicants who were unable or unwilling to supply their own personal Rosebuds. The writer-director reportedly interviewed many screenplay people throughout Japan in preparing After Life and in this way managed to sketch a hazy, ghostly portrait of recent Japanese history. He even contrives an ultraspiritual romance at the facility between a staff member and an initially recalcitrant applicant seemingly destined to become a staff member himself. But when he discovers to his amazement that he was deeply loved by a previous applicant he barely remembers, he chooses to venture into the Great Beyond with that one revelatory moment in his mind.

From Robert Milton and Sutton Vane’s Outward Bound (1930) onward, Western treatments of this theme have seldom resisted the temptation to score easy allegorical points with bloated capitalist characters confounded by their sudden loss of power to influence events and other people with their money. There is no such facile comeuppance in After Life . There is instead an appreciative awareness of a people who instinctively understand the limits of life and death.