A Coal Miner’s Story, But No Working-Class Hero

Li Yang’s Blind Shaft , (in Mandarin with English subtitles), based on the novel Shenmu by Liu Qingbang, opens his evocative, semi-documentary-style narrative in a Chinese coal-mining region, a bleak, gray landscape littered with hilly slag heaps, and without a tree or shrub in sight. As a procession of unidentified miners descend in an elevator to the lower depths, we may be forgiven for anticipating a cinematic mining tragedy on the order of G.W. Pabst’s Kameradschaft (1931), Carol Reed’s The Stars Look Down (1939) or John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941). Each was in their own way a memorable allegory of working-class brotherhood as once exemplified by the humanist faith of the European and American left.

But Blind Shaft isn’t really a demonstration of brotherhood at all. Rather, it’s a brilliantly Brechtian dissection of a corrupt capitalistic enterprise that functions in an ideologically disintegrating and nominally socialist tyranny.

After the film’s stunning opening images of an anonymous band of miners, visible only by the searchlights on their helmets, an unexplained and seemingly unmotivated murder occurs in the pits. Two of the miners, Tang (Wang Shuangbao) and his partner Song (Li Yixiang), emerge with a story of a “relative” killed in an alleged cave-in. After threatening to notify the police of the mine owner’s negligence, they allow themselves to be bought off with a bribe. It’s only gradually that we realize that the two seemingly distraught miners have been running this homicidal scam as a cold-blooded business for some time.

In these early, largely expository scenes, the mine owner is shown to be not merely corrupt, but also wired into a totally mercenary scheme to hire the police to kill the two troublemakers if they insist in raising the ante. However, the two “mourning” miners are too shrewd to overplay their hand. They trudge off to the nearest town, spending their ill-gotten gains on drink and debauchery before setting off to find a new mine, and a new victim, to help replenish their funds.

Up until now, these two rascals have served mostly as comic figures of social satire, largely due to the fact that we never really got to know the only victim shown thus far. But the chill of horror begins when their next target is selected: a guileless, homesick teenager who’s searching for work to help him finish his education. Hence the sheer inexorability of the process-the two older men adopt the young boy (with false papers making him 18 instead of 16) so he can work in the mine, so they can murder him-provides us with more suspense than we may be prepared to handle.

Still, from the first shot to the last, we’re in the hands of a masterly storyteller who, like Zhang Yimou before him, has the serendipitous gift of unveiling an entire society while following the up-and-down-fortunes of his far-from-virtuous protagonists. And even with his deep understanding of working-class desperation, Mr. Li is thrillingly alive to the miraculous power of pure goodness to shine on a cruel and impoverished world. This enables him to find an ending that is satisfyingly ironic without ever becoming cloyingly sentimental. Let us simply say that Blind Shaft is the best picture I have seen so far this year-which, I admit, at the beginning of February, isn’t saying much.

Osama -Rama

Siddia Barmak’s Osama , from his own screenplay (in Dari Parsi, with English subtitles) is the first film produced in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over in 1996 and were deposed in 2001. The film plays out as a feminist horror film: Osama (Marina Goldbahari), a young girl who clings fearfully and tearfully to her mother (Zubaida Sahar), is forced by economic necessity to have her hair shorn so she can get a job in a grocery store posing as a boy. But Osama’s never too convincing in her imposture, and she finds no reserves of pluck and bravery to carry her through her continuing ordeals, even after she’s befriended by a compassionate male street urchin.

It’s only a matter of time before she and all the other local boys are picked up by the Taliban and taken to a frighteningly theocratic school, where they’re taught nothing but how to recite the Koran and the proper way to wash their genitals. She flunks here, too, but hey-this isn’t the SAT’s. Needless to say, Osama is eventually arrested and saved from a fearful punishment by a lecherous old mullah who claims her as his latest bride. As the film ends, Osama is facing a fate far worse than death-as her bitter female predecessors never tire of warning her.

Many critics have raved about the film and Ms. Goldbahari’s performance as the ill-fated victim of the Taliban’s mistreatment of women (and men as well). However, I found Mr. Barmak’s direction too by-the-numbers, and Ms. Goldbahari’s Osama a one-note performance in her relentlessly whimpering (though perfectly understandable) self-pity. The Taliban were horrible, indeed; I just hope and pray that the Shiites in Iraq don’t make Iraqi women yearn for the good old secular days of Saddam Hussein.

I can understand why the Golden Globe people voted for Osama as Best Foreign-Language Film over Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions . It’s like voting for an anti-Hitler picture, complete with fashionably pessimistic ending for its foredoomed protagonist. Osama wasn’t nominated in the same category by the Academy’s voters, but I’m afraid The Barbarian Invasions will lose again to some more obscure entry that is more simplistic and less complex in its emotional arguments. No matter: I still stand by The Barbarian Invasions as the best foreign-language film of last year. You can still see it in the theaters.

Little Man Fin

Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent , from his own screenplay, has received such rapturous raves from people I know and respect that I began to wonder why I had avoided it for so long. Now that I’ve finally caught up-ostensibly to check up on Patricia Clarkson’s performance, which won some awards last year-I think I know why. Movies about physically or mentally challenged protagonists make me nervous, mainly because I feel inhibited in making any adverse character judgments.

As it turns out, Mr. McCarthy stacks the deck for dwarf character Finbar McBride, (played by the very talented actor Peter Dinklage), who’s not only the central point-of-view protagonist of the piece but also more sensitive and self-sufficient-yet also more articulate-than any of the emotionally needy characters who surround him. Still, Fin (as he calls himself) wants nothing but to be left alone to pursue his passion for trains; he makes his living as a maker and repairer of toy trains. When Fin’s African-American employer, the elderly Henry Styles (Paul Benjamin), dies of a heart attack, Fin is told by the lawyers that the store is being sold for the benefit of Styles’ heirs, and that Fin has inherited an abandoned railroad depot that served as Styles’ home before he retired from his job as a station agent many years before.

Fin walks down the mostly unused railroad tracks to a largely deserted train station in Newfoundland, N.J. Seen in long shot, Fin’s 4-foot-6 body makes him look freakish because of the disproportionate size of his head, which is, of course, dwarf-like rather than anatomically proportioned. Indeed, Fin’s head is larger than those of the other characters, so that he tends to dominate visually in close-up.

People laugh when I talk about the size of heads in movies, but that’s because most people look at movies without seeing them in the way they look at paintings. Humphrey Bogart (1899-1964) and Alan Ladd (1913-1964) were two legendary tough guys in movies of the 40′s who photographed much taller than their comparably short heights. This was partly because they were big enough stars to make other players in the frame stand on a somewhat lower level, and partly because their heads were large enough to project a taller image. Mr. Dinklage projects both size and intelligence in the fascinating reticence of his face. Given the fact that he has previously acted in a play written and directed by Mr. McCarthy, it’s not surprising that The Station Agent is built completely around Fin’s character and his gradual awakening to the need for companionship, from two characters even lonelier and more frustrated than he: Patrica Clarkson’s Olivia Harris, a mother grieving for her dead child, and Bobby Cannavale’s Joe Oramas, a desperately talkative hot-dog vendor with an ailing Latino father whom we never see.

Olivia comes across as more ditzy than cute when she nearly runs Fin over with her station wagon not once but twice, while Joe won’t leave him alone. After a while, I began to weary of the thin texture of the narrative, with its small handful of characters and its conveniently depopulated empty spaces. Fin is traumatically reminded of his limitations when he attempts to prevent the manhandling of a pretty and pregnant librarian named Emily (Michelle Williams) by her angry boyfriend,whocontemptuously shoves Fin aside with ridiculously little effort. Fin is later consoled sexually by the kind-hearted Emily in a sweet gesture of gratitude for her little friend’s gallantry. This is all very nice, and I’m happy that everyone in the film finds a measure of contentment in a very relaxed form of friendship. Mr. McCarthy reports in the production notes that he knew he was taking a risk when he cast “a dwarf as a true leading man, not a sidekick or there for comic effect.” He needn’t have worried. Actually, only a dwarf could keep the audience’s attention through all the atmospheric interludes of inaction-and a marvelously gifted dwarf, at that.

Charlie’s Ego

Richard Schickel’s new documentary Charlie: The Life and Art of Charlie Chaplin , is opening at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on Friday, Feb. 13, and I urge everyone to see it, though I must again declare a conflict of interest: Mr. Schickel is a personal friend, and I appear in the film as one of the talking heads discussing Chaplin’s life and art. But I promise that I’m not on very often, though I should mention who else is: directors like Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Milos Forman and Richard Attenborough; performers like Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp, Marcel Marceau and Bill Irwin; critics and biographers like David Thompson, Jeanine Basinger, David Robinson and Jeffrey Vance; andevenChaplin’scollaborators (David Raksin, Norman Lloyd, Claire Bloom) and children (Sydney, Geraldine and Michael).

The film follows Chaplin (1899-1977) from his first screen appearance in Henry Lehrman’s Kid Auto Races at Venice in 1914 to his last days in Switzerland. According to Mr. Schickel, Chaplin from the start was “driven by his relentless ego, by his helpless need for an audience to dominate, to lead. All the tragedies of his life stemmed from those drives and needs.” Superlatives come very easily in any discussion of Chaplin’s career, but what’s most valuable in this documentary are the nuances.