Eminem Made Me a Believer: He’s James Dean, Not Elvis

Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mil e, from a screenplay by Scott Silver, has provided me with my brightest and most surprising pop-music epiphany since the Beatles in Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s A Hard Day’s Night shook up all my critical preconceptions 38 years ago and made me proclaim A Hard Day’s Night “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies,” thus earning me immortality as a clue on the board game Trivial Pursuit. Anyway, Eminem is the Man here, though I’m not sure he can play anything or anyone else as convincingly and as stirringly as he plays Jimmy Smith Jr., known in the movie as Rabbit, an obvious stand-in for Marshall Mathers III/Eminem himself. Jimmy the Rabbit hails from the wrong side of 8 Mile Road, which separates Detroit’s blighted, mostly black inner city from its affluent, predominantly white suburbs.

Mr. Hanson deserves a great deal of credit for the straightforward, non-gimmicky method he has used to articulate the rap duels in 8 Mile . Instead of resorting to MTV-type camera pyrotechnics with an editing rhythm synchronized to the pulse-quickening drum beat of the rap accompaniment, he has chosen to slowly glide with a handheld camera into a sustained contemplation of the faces, the postures and the varying confrontational “attitudes” of both the rapper and his challenger, who is scrupulously silent until it is his turn to retaliate with his own rap.

Truth to tell, I’m still not a rap enthusiast, even temporarily. I don’t really get it musically, and I probably never will. I had never listened to an Eminem recording before I saw 8 Mile , though I had patiently endured some African-American hip-hop performers on the unexpurgated Chris Rock stand-up comedy show on cable television, and I remained unmoved. This was not the case when I first encountered the girl-cherishing Beatles and the joyous Motown sound of Diana Ross and the Supremes.

Though I don’t believe that hip-hop represents the end of civilization as we know it, I have never grooved on the anger and biliousness of the lyrics. Perhaps I lead a much-too-privileged existence as a member of a much-too-privileged race.

Yet Eminem has gotten to me as a screen presence in a way that Elvis himself, with his similar proclivity for black music-rhythm and blues rather than rap-never did. Indeed, I have to go back to James Dean in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden and Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause in 1955 to find a comparably jolting piece of male aggressiveness coupled with bottled-up vulnerability.

But Eminem’s Jimmy Jr., unlike Dean’s characters, is not yearning for some inaccessible parental approval, understanding or stability. What Jimmy is trying to do is break out of the hellhole of his environment by mastering and cashing in on the musical idiom of his black friends, enemies and fellow slum-dwellers. His is but the latest version of the hyper-individualized American Dream, memorialized in Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “My Way,” an American adaptation of a French chanson with less grandiose connotations.

To get to the top, Jimmy Jr. doesn’t feel the need to gain the love of a good woman. He has tried half-heartedly on two occasions, first with Janeane (Taryn Manning), who may or may not be pregnant and who may or may not be faithful, but who has time on her hands, to be sure, and then with Alex (Brittany Murphy), a wannabe model who immediately cheats on Jimmy to get ahead. After confirming his manhood by beating up Alex’s seducer, Jimmy walks away from the relationship and resumes his solo march to his success-driven destiny.

What is truly impressive about Jimmy Jr. is his refusal to compromise his rock-solid white identity and morph into one of Norman Mailer’s “White Negroes.” Here there’s a fortuitous coincidence at work in the grim inexpressiveness of Eminem’s stone-faced countenance. The intensity of his character’s withholding is the secret source of his psychic strivings.

The self-absorbed Jimmy is redeemed for audiences by his unstinting love for his adorable 5-year-old sister, Lily (Chloe Greenfield), and his loyalty to his gay hanger-on, Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones). As for his slatternly, marginally alcoholic mother, Stephanie (Kim Basinger), Jimmy is kind to her to the extent that he doesn’t self-pityingly scorn and reject her-even when she takes on as her latest love Jimmy’s high-school classmate, Greg Buehl (Michael Shannon). In this volatile domestic cauldron, Mr. Hanson and Mr. Silver have kept the disruptive dysfunctionality from exploding into a police chase. Such an explosion would have reduced the dramatic impact of the climactic rap duel between Jimmy and Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie). Jimmy wins the contest, after an embarrassing failure of nerve in a previous duel, by a shrewdly confessional strategy that leaves his opponent with no talking points. This masterly maneuver, worthy of a Caesar or a Napoleon, compensates for the lack of suspense in this formulaic situation.

Mr. Hanson is on an impressive winning streak with his three successfully seriocomic sagas of moral and existential survival in hothouses of social pathology : L.A. Confidential (1997), with its police wrongdoing; Wonder Boys (2000), with its academic dysfunction; and now 8 Mile , with its backdrop of the neglect and abandonment of the urban poor. Despite Rabbit’s rhetoric about making it alone, he is the beneficiary of a tradition forged out of the misery of many other people. “Independence” is a middle-class shibboleth, since the fact is that we are each of us dependent on many other human beings. Rabbit may “make it,” just as Marshall Mathers III turned into Eminem and “made it,” but it will be as part of a parade, even if he’s marching at the very front.

Anti-Clericalism in Mexico

Carlos Carrera’s El Crimen del Padre Amaro , from a screenplay by Vincente Leñero, has been adapted from an 1875 novel with the same title by the Portuguese author José Maria Eça de Queiróz. Though the novel is set in a small 19th-century Mexican village, this “period” subject has been updated for the screen with cars, buses, drive-by criminal gangs and drug lords. But the central theme, priestly violations of the Catholic Church’s code of celibacy, could have been inspired by recent headlines of clerical misbehavior.

In any event, El Crimen del Padre Amaro has been a runaway box-office success in Mexico, but it’s still scrambling here. The Mexican Catholic Church has already petitioned the Mexican President to ban the film outright-thus far unsuccessfully-but I hate to think what our own right-to-life President would think of a film that deals with the perils of back-alley abortions.

Still, I find it interesting that American film producers have stayed away from any subject dealing with priestly misbehavior, while a recent Law and Order episode on network television confronted the subject head-on with sensitivity and fair-mindedness.

El Crimen del Padre Amaro deals with other forms of institutional corruption besides the abuse of underage parishioners. These morally questionable acts include deals with a narco-chieftain to pay for a needed hospital with laundered drug money, and the excommunication of a priest practicing idealistic liberation theology, who has been branded a subversive supporter of Communist guerrillas when he refuses to transfer to a convent where he will be far from the impoverished people he wishes to serve. The issue of homosexuality in the priesthood, however, is never even mentioned, as if it were unthinkable in the midst of Mexican machismo .

The lead role of Father Amaro, a recently ordained 24-year-old priest sent to a small parish church in Los Reyes, Mexico, is played by Mexican matinee idol Gael García Bernal. From the outset, Mr. Bernal’s Father Amaro, with his seemingly guileless smile, struck me as much too narcissistically self-approving to be capable of any genuinely altruistic acts. At first, my estimation seemed wrong, as Father Amaro gives some money outright to an elderly fellow passenger who has lost his life’s savings to a band of bus robbers. But soon Amaro shows his true colors when he allows himself to be seduced by 16-year-old Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón), a beautiful girl whose widowed mother, Sanjuanera (Angélica Aragón), has been sleeping with Father Benito (Sancho Gracia), Father Amaro’s superior.

When Amelia becomes pregnant and reluctantly agrees to an abortion to save Father Amaro’s career, he drives her-disillusioned with his craven behavior as she is-to the abortionist, whose botched procedure causes her to bleed to death. This, I suppose, is Father Amaro’s “crime,” for which he manages to escape blame and punishment. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg of his iniquities, which include dishonesty, treachery, cruelty, cowardice, hypocrisy and venality. In short, he’s a monster of unbridled ambition without scruples-and most damning of all to the church, he seems to be a model for a successful priestly career. This is anti-clericalism with a vengeance, of a type almost unknown here in America, where people are more squeamishly pious than genuinely religious.

Audrey Tautou Pouts Her Way Into My Heart

Pascale Bailly’s God Is Great, I’m Not , from a screenplay by Ms. Bailly and Alain Tasma, is a movie that slowly creeps up on you after a series of start-and-stop scenes, punctuated with blackouts, that prevent any narrative rhythm from emerging out of the indecisive encounters of a group of unresolved characters. Gradually, a young gamine named Michèle (Audrey Tautou) manages to break away from the amorphous pack to pair off with a Jewish veterinarian named François (Édouard Baer). She is 20 years old; he’s 32. She’s determined to find something new to believe in beyond her mother’s tired, ritualized Catholicism, and so she decides to become Jewish, in order to combine her soul with his-or rather, with what she assumes to be in François’ soul. He quickly assures her that he is completely irreligious, even though he’s the son of Holocaust survivors who yearn to see their Jewishness reaffirmed in François’ future children.

Ms. Bailly dances over these touchy subjects and problematic relationships with a casual indefiniteness that enables Ms. Tautou to display the full range of her silent-movie-like virtuosity, mostly through her sparkling eyes and pouting-princess balletic grace. I am convinced she can do anything, and I recommend the movie almost solely because of her. This is a considerable change of attitude on my part; I successfully resisted Ms. Tautou’s charms in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s wildly overrated Amélie (2001), her biggest hit thus far. I have liked Ms. Tautou, though, not Amélie , much more since. That’s just the way it is.