Saturday, September 03, 2005

Some Sprouts Have Deep Roots

It wasn't very long ago, it seems, that 'Stine and I saw "City of God". In a nutshell, "City of God" follows the rise of gang warlord Lil' Ze, a brutal thug living in a squalid, unpaved slum of Rio De Janeiro in Brazil. With a kinetic style, peppered with post-music-video aesthetic flourishes, the young director Fernando Meirelles had announced the arrival of a new talent. His low-budget marvel shared certain similarities in both story and style to Martin Scorcese's Mean Streets, while his use of mixed film stock, saturated color, flashy editing and copious zooming and titling called to mind both a less polemical--though no less political--Oliver Stone and a more hard-nosed, less campy Baz Luhrman. But to be fair, his style was as much a part of the new wave in South/Central American and Mexican cinema as it was an nod to his stateside aesthetic forbears. Like fellow Brazilian director Karim Ainouz--who's Madam Sata is a masterpiece of gay, biographical, martial-arts and crime cinema all at once (featuring an astounding tour de force of a performance by Lazaro Ramos in the title role of real-life thief/bandit/drag-queen/capoeirista Joao Francisco dos Santos)--Meirelles had told a story that was very much of his country and his background. Like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the director of the potent Mexican drama Amores Perros, it was also a journal of urban decay, a paradoxically sensual, yet relentlessly dystopian, portrait of an inner city that strives, vampirically, to suck its denizens dry of all hope.

And, inevitably, like Inarritu--who would go on to direct the flawed but powerful drama 21 Grams with Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro--Meirelles was given the reigns to a domestic release. On Wednesday, The Constant Gardener, an adaptation of a John Le Carre thriller of the same name starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, opened to great acclaim. The acclaim is more than deserved. In what amounts to both the best romantic drama and the most exciting spy thriller of the year, Meirelles and his flawless cast have given us a tremendous gift: A film that is visceral, smart, poignant, colorful and alive. And while I usually hate it when reviewers say this, I can think of no other film that not only earns this compliment, but truly renders it complimentary: It is resolutely and unapologetically a film for adults.

In broad strokes, the story: Justin Quayle, a humble, nebbishy diplomat, played to perfection by Ralph Fiennes in what may be his career-best performance, is called to identify the body of his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz, who has never been stronger, sexier or more nuanced), found brutally murdered by a rural road in a remote region of Kenya. Combining flashbacks, flashforwards and present-time narrative to tell two stories--that of the events that transpire from the couple's initial meeting to the murder, and that of the investigation by Justin into the truth behind her death--The Constant Gardener immerses us in a world of international corporate malfeisance, corruption, espionage and genocide.

This world is Le Carre's, of course. But by applying to this story the same disjointed time frame that he used in City of God, Meirelles, along with screenwriter Jeffrey Caine, deserves credit for injecting the formula with new life. And where Le Carre's novels famously take place in parlours, restaurants and studies, Meirelles sets his in the vibrant hubbub of his truly foreign locations. Like Steven Soderbergh in Traffic, Meirelles color-codes his locations: England is gray and grainy, while Africa burns brightly with fierce red sands and explosive local plumage. Much of the camera work is hand held; but Meirelles cinematographer, Cesar Charlone, doesn't push for the jittery theatrics usually associated therewith (except, of course, when it's called for). The film is both exquisitely flashy yet coolly restrained, a skillful paradox which may soon make the young auteur a household name.

With strong supporting performances by Danny Huston, Bill Nighy and Hubert Kounde (a new face to me, Kounde plays the native doctor in Nairobi who guides the strident activist Tessa through the local intrigue that will draw her deeper into peril), The Constant Gardener satisfies on so many levels that it's impossible to elucidate all of the levels on which it clicks. And critics who have previously dismissed Meirelles as an all-flash-no-substance upstart should be surprised, if not outright shamed, by the emotional through line that sits at the warm, beating heart of what could easily have been a slick exercise in a genre not known for its human drama (full disclosure: tears were shed by both the 'hound and 'Stine at this one). One could go on ad nauseam about the craft at work in this picture; and this young hotshot in Brazil, along with his artistic team and screenwriter, deserve any kudos we can cook up for their competent treatment of the source material. But it's the soul of this very soulful piece that makes it art . . . and art it most assuredly is.


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