A Bloody, Postcolonial Cleansing Chillingly Retold in Hotel Rwanda

Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda, from a screenplay by Keir Pearson and Mr. George, turns out to be the most truly inspiring movie of the year, even though it’s carved out of the most horrifying slice of recent history: the 1994 massacre of the Tutsi minority by the Hutu in Rwanda.

The film begins in an atmosphere of comparative calm. Paul Rusesabagina, the urbane Rwandan manager of the four-star Belgian-owned Hôtel Milles Collines in the town of Kigali, is seen making his daily rounds, supervising his large hotel staff and visiting suppliers in town, as well as police and army officials who require bribes to provide the necessary security shield for the hotel amid the politically unstable climate in the country. Paul is always neatly dressed in coat and tie, in the manner of the completely Westernized African that he is.

And then the first ominous signs that all is not well come from radio broadcasts describing the minority Tutsi as “cockroaches” to be stamped out if the majority Hutu are to be avenged for the Tutsi-favoring policies of the former Belgian colonial administrators. The nuances of these alleged grievances are never extensively explored in the film, but it’s suggested that ordinary Rwandans, Hutu and Tutsi alike, could have lived together amicably enough if they hadn’t been whipped into a frenzy of tribal hatred by political opportunists seeking power.

Be that as it may, Paul soon finds himself, his family and everyone in his hotel menaced by machete-wielding Hutu intent on butchering all the Tutsi in their path. When Paul remonstrates with one of their leaders and observes that the Hutu cannot possibly kill all the Tutsi in Rwanda, the leader casually responds, “Why not? We’ve already killed half of them.” Stomach-churning spectacles of human slaughter, chillingly staged by the director and filmed on location in Rwanda and South Africa, lend credence to the Hutu chieftain’s blood-curdling words.

Paul endeavors to keep the hotel open by hook or by crook, surreptitiously transforming it into a sanctuary for some 1,400 fugitives from certain death at the hands of the Hutu hordes. This ingenious act of mercy on Paul’s part has led some critics to label Hotel Rwanda an African Schindler’s List, but the comparison is inept. Paul, unlike Oscar Schindler, has nothing material with which to placate the would-be exterminators; he relies instead on his politically connected hotel superior in Brussels (Jean Reno), a local U.N. detachment commander (Nick Nolte) and, mostly, his own wits and gift for inventive improvisation.

At one point, when he and his charges seem to be facing certain doom, he advises his wife (Sophie Okonedo) to jump from the roof of the hotel with their children rather than let themselves be taken by the rampaging Hutu. That this event never came to pass was more a matter of luck than design. Time and again, when salvation in the form of international intervention seemed at hand, the cruel indifference of the outside world became apparent. Mr. Nolte’s U.N. commander throws his helmet on the ground when he learns that a U.N. force large enough to evacuate all the refugees had been given strict orders to evacuate only the European tourists and a few privileged Africans.

Later, even after his wife and children are granted safe passage by a U.N. force, Paul chooses to stay behind with the last contingent of refugees. The point is that even when he realizes that he’s an expendable African in European eyes, and that all his devoted service to his firm doesn’t change the color of his skin, he refuses to abandon his European dress, manners and civility to go ferociously and ostentatiously native. Paul will remain assimilated to the bitter end, if need be, and he refuses to surrender his dignity even on the edge of extinction.

Don Cheadle, a long-neglected and underrated actor in policiers both on television and in the movies, gives one of the most glorious performances of the year as the unostentatiously indomitable hotel manager-a man who, even in his darkest moments, strives furiously to get both strands of his tie to come out even before collapsing in tears of frustration. He is the quintessential good chap simply doing his job as best he can, and yet finding within himself untapped resources of courage and endurance. The real-life Paul Rusesabagina, who now lives in Brussels with his family, served as a special consultant on the film. The world certainly needs more people like him.

Nixon’s Almost Fate

The partial credits for The Assassination of Richard Nixon provide some indication of the collective liberal spirit at work on the project: directed by Niels Mueller; written by Mr. Mueller and Kevin Kennedy; produced by Alfred Cuaron and Jorge Vergara; with Arnaud Duteil, Avram Butch Kaplan, Kevin Kennedy, Frida Torresblanco, Alexander Payne and Leonardo DiCaprio serving as executive producers.

Reportedly inspired by a true story, the film purports to be a largely fictional dramatization of the basic facts: Yes, there was a real-life would-be Presidential assassin with a name much like-but not exactly like-the film’s Sam Bicke (no relation to the would-be Presidential assassin Travis Bickle, so memorably played by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, from a screenplay by Paul Schrader). In the film, Bicke (played by Sean Penn) is a loser to end all losers: His marriage to Marie (Naomi Watts) is a mess, and his various jobs and private business ventures are failures, too. Everywhere Sam goes, we see him bombarded with televised images of Nixon in the throes of Watergate and the Vietnam War coming to an end. As the production notes tell us further: “This chapter of American history, culminating in the Watergate hearings, is what first compelled screenwriter Niels Mueller (who also makes his directorial debut with the project), to begin the script …. ‘I’d been interested for a while in what some historians refer to as “the decade of shock to the American system,”‘ he says. ‘Authors I’ve read talk about this decade, which starts in 1963 with the first Kennedy assassination, and ends in 1974 with Nixon’s resignation, as being the one in which America lost its innocence. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but the questions interested me.'”

The big problem with Mr. Mueller’s linkage of the failures of a nobody to a President’s malfeasance in office is that the viewer is encouraged a little too blatantly to see a causal relationship between the two. If Nixon had been a Washington or a Pericles, would Sam Bicke have been a success? Would he then have fulfilled his American dream? With Mr. Penn even more whiny and self-pitying than he was as the titular slow Joe in the manipulative and overrated I Am Sam (2001), there’s no chance that his would-be everyman can be programmed for anything but frustration, defeat and the most ignominious failure imaginable. He never even gets off the ground during his attempted airline hijacking, in which he plans to force the pilots to crash into the White House-thus inadvertently anticipating Osama bin Laden’s tactics by almost three decades.

I must confess that I was completely ignorant of Mr. Mueller’s exhaustively esoteric research into this largely neglected footnote to the Watergate era, and I consider myself now moderately enlightened on the subject. Still, I find that I much prefer Mr. Penn as the not-so-nice cynic in Anthony Drazan’s Hurlyburly (1998) or Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (2003) to his sincere, idealistic fool here. In this context, Ms. Watts’ defiantly short-skirted barroom waitress functions more as Sam’s dominatrix than as a woman with whom he once shared a conjugal connection. Jack Jones (Jack Thompson), Sam’s subtly sadistic boss, seems to keep Sam employed simply to find new ways to humiliate him. The scriptwriters twist the screws tighter by making Sam a liberal poster-boy victim: He broad-mindedly endorses the Black Panthers and befriends African-American auto mechanic Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle) and his family. Yet he can’t even persuade Bonny to retaliate against the racist customers who casually insult him. Sam has apparently never heard of the capitalist commandment, “The customer is always right.”

Although Mr. Mueller started working on his script long before 9/11-and certainly long before the very depressing re-election of George W. Bush-the fact remains that the much-abused Richard Nixon is gradually emerging, in the eyes of Richard Corliss and others, as our last liberal President. And after 70 years of resistance to Social Security-and with the Republicans closer than ever to killing it-I am not in the mood to keep demonizing Nixon.

A French Cinderella?

Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin (1970), from his own screenplay, based on Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, is a difficult film to classify or evaluate in this, the most desperate of seasons, in which parents and grandparents become obsessed with finding suitable diversions for their charges. A new 35-millimeter color restoration of Demy’s musical fairy tale might provide a suitable hour-and-a-half diversion: It’s playing at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street) from Christmas Eve through Jan. 4, 2005.

The negative of Demy’s opulent film had become so faded and worn that his widow, filmmaker Agnès Varda, decided to oversee a new 35-millimeter restoration of both picture and sound, using Michel Legrand’s original stereo recordings to remix the soundtrack into Dolby SR for the first time.

Unacquainted as I am with the voluminous scholarship on fairy tales, I cannot determine how much of this film’s curiously tongue-in-cheek upscale treatment can be attributed to Demy (1931-1990) and how much to Perrault (1628-1703). Certainly, the anachronistic deployment of a helicopter to transport a king and his new wife to the wedding of the king’s daughter in a neighboring kingdom can be safely attributed to Demy. And thereby hangs a tale to make parents and grandparents blush, what with all the quintessentially Gallic twists on the old Cinderella yarn spun by Demy and Perrault.

Catherine Deneuve plays three roles in this romantic fantasy, first as the beautiful queen married to the king (Jean Marais). When she falls ill and is lying on her deathbed, she makes the distraught king promise to remarry after her death, but only to a princess more beautiful than she. After a fruitless search high and low, the only princess to meet the late queen’s specifications is the king and queen’s own daughter, also played by Ms. Deneuve. Yielding to the demand of his ministers for a male heir, the king orders his daughter to marry him. Not surprisingly, though she loves her father in a non-incestuous manner, the princess calls on her fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig) to devise a stratagem to thwart his wishes. As a delaying tactic, she asks first for a gown as lustrous as the moon, then for a gown as bright as the sun, and finally, in desperation, for a cloak made from donkey skin, taken from the useful and patient animal that produces gold coins for the king’s treasury in its intestines. When this wish is also granted, the princess has no recourse but to flee to a neighboring kingdom, where she is employed as a scullery maid known far and wide as Donkey Skin, reputedly the ugliest female in the kingdom.

Not to worry: The fairy godmother sees to it that Donkey Skin has all the fineries and luxuries of a princess in what looks like a peasant’s hut from the outside, but can be transformed in an instant into a royal boudoir on the inside. The late Louis Kronenberger once observed, in a Columbia lecture on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, that Eliza Doolittle was more of a plausible Cinderella than the scullery maid whose foot fit the ballroom slipper, but who was not in the least socially or culturally equipped for a life at court. Shaw’s Eliza, by contrast, was favored with a crash course in how to fit in with the highest of aristocracy.

Not that the prince (Jaques Perrin) in this fairy tale is any bargain as a romantic hero. A petulant mama’s boy, he pretends to be ill to force his doting mother, the Red Queen (Micheline Presle), to make all the necessary arrangements to obtain Donkey Skin as his bride, the prince having previously glimpsed her beauty through the window of her hut.

French to the core, the princess, as Donkey Skin, bakes him a cake d’amour that magically cures him. Inside the cake, she has inserted a ring that fits only her own finger-and after all the other members of the fair sex in the kingdom have failed the test, Donkey Skin is summoned to provide the proverbial happy ending.

Some might object that the prince and the princess are two spoiled brats in the modern trust-fund/café-society mold-and the folks at PETA would certainly complain that a donkey is slaughtered to satisfy the whim of a princess. It’s as if Demy and Perrault are saying: “Come on, folks, get real-the haves are happier in this world than the have-nots, and the have-mores (in Bush parlance), like the kings and queens and princes and princesses of yore, are happiest of all.” Although Demy himself always voted for the Socialists, in his heart of hearts he knew that life isn’t fair, and he made an ironically enchanting entertainment for grown-ups to prove it, even inserting a bitterly unemployed woman in the stream of ring-finger applicants to provide a discordant dose of reality.

A Bloody, Postcolonial Cleansing Chillingly Retold in Hotel Rwanda