Kids learn the darnedest things, especially in movies that try to simulate a childlike sense of amazement. Yet both the wisdom and the wonder tend to be pat in such films, leaving the viewer no more educated or enlightened. Although neither is any sort of landmark, Bee Season and Machuca are a little different. Whereas the latter ultimately jumps from routine coming-of-age flick to sociopolitical moment of truth, the former mucks around in stuff that no mainstream American entertainment—save, perhaps, the last few Madonna albums—has ever explored.
Ostensibly the tale of an 11-year-old girl who comes into her own when she realizes she can spell just like ringing a bell, Bee Season follows the same trajectory as 2003 documentary hit Spellbound, complete with a culminating trip to the finals in Washington. Quiet, underappreciated Eliza (Flora Cross) earns a new respect in the oppressively cultured Naumann household, yet she can’t upstage the family’s star, her genially domineering dad. Saul Naumann (Richard Gere) is a dynamic Berkeley religion professor who dazzles his students, cooks dinner regularly, and plays Bach violin-and-cello duets with his favored child, 16-ish Aaron (Max Minghella). Uneasy French-born matriarch Miriam Naumann, a research biologist and convert to Judaism, is as vestigial a character as a woman played by Juliette Binoche can be, although we’ll eventually see that she has her (irrational) reasons.
Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who previously made the stylishly baffling Suture and The Deep End, use their suspense-flick chops to suggest that Miriam is having an affair, or worse. It turns out, however, that her private obsessions are considerably more metaphysical. In fact, they mirror those of her inattentive husband, who wrote his dissertation on cabala, the strain of Jewish mysticism that’s lately attracted pop-culture celebs who are too cagey for Scientology. Once Saul realizes that Eliza has a gift for orthography, he eagerly starts tutoring her. His real interest, however, is not winning the national bee but developing a mystical relationship with the text that will allow Eliza to attain union with God, an experience he rues never having realized himself. Kind of a heavy trip to wish on your tween daughter, even if she does have dark eyes that suggest unfathomable depths.
As the film begins, a helicopter carries a large A over the Bay Area waterfront, a witty twist on the oft-emulated opening of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, in which a dangling statue of Christ is seen departing Rome. God may be gone, but the Alpha has arrived: The A touches down, taking its place in a “Port of Oakland” sign. Putting everything in its proper spot is Saul and Miriam’s separate but complementary obsession, expressing the cabalists’ notion of tikkun olam: repairing the world that was shattered at its birth when God flooded it with overwhelming light. (Yes, I do know this is the new movie from the star of Pretty Woman and The Mothman Prophecies.) Miriam gives Eliza a kaleidoscope, which creates new visions by splintering reality, and Saul instructs the spelling prodigy to “permute the letters back and forth.” And boy does she: Letters flit around Eliza like fireflies, and cartoon birds and plants cue her how to spell pertinent words.
Adapted—and inevitably distorted—from Myla Goldberg’s 2000 novel by scripter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, Bee Season enthusiastically jumbles the plausible, the inexplicable, and the overreaching. It’s understandable that Aaron, jilted by his formerly doting dad, would investigate new spiritual possibilities, especially when tempted by the foxiest Hare Krishna in town (Kate Bosworth). And though Gere’s believability as a cabala scholar owes much to his off-screen reputation as the world’s cutest Tibetan Buddhist—not that the Dalai Lama isn’t adorable—he is convincing as the sort of charismatic intellectual despot who would eventually exhaust even his greatest admirers. But Miriam’s philosophical personality disorder doesn’t work as either story line or psychology, and Eliza preposterously becomes a sort of Dostoevskian saint, given to moments of epileptic clarity and a climactic gesture of self-sacrifice that might restore her family, if not the universe.
Bee Season includes some routine hokum, from an attack-dog shock cut to an African-American maid who dispenses homespun truths to Eliza as she wanders the lower levels of a hotel that’s supposed to be H Street NW’s Grand Hyatt. Its big problem, though, is its big theme: religious transcendence. Cornball oldies like The Song of Bernadette, which Eliza is shown watching, haven’t aged well, and this film’s swirling letters and animated sprouts are only a technological advance, not a conceptual one. Some Asian and European directors have crafted films that achieve a contemplative tone, but McGehee and Siegel are too movie-mad for that: They like star turns and thriller tropes, things of little interest to Robert Bresson or Hirokazu Kore-eda. Still, they do seek to tweak the mainstream paradigm here and there, and if that’s not the Hollywood equivalent of tikkun olam, it at least beats Runaway Bride.
For pudgy, pink-faced Gonzalo Infante, another 11-year-old, the universe ruptures twice in a matter of months, once to tantalizingly admit people from the poor side of town, and another time to harshly push them back to the margins. Santiago in 1973 was the site of a peaceful revolution and a violent counterrevolution, the latter of which the Machuca protagonist watches with confused helplessness, much the way he observes his imperious (and married) mother’s afternoon trysts with a wealthy Argentinian. Privileged yet naive, Gonzalo (Matias Quer) has yet to be initiated into the real workings of the Chilean ruling class when he encounters aristocratic power at its most savage.
Like Innocent Voices, which opened here last month, Machuca attempts to muffle any potential backlash by taking a boy’s-eye view of American-backed state terrorism. That strategy renders both films a little softer than their subjects seem to require, but it is justified by their autobiographical origins: Innocent Voices was based on the brutal childhood of its scripter in ’80s El Salvador, and Machuca is derived from the childhood memories of its director and co-writer, Andrés Wood. As his surname suggests, Wood was a member of an Anglo component of Santiago’s gentry, much like his fictional counterpart. Though Gonzalo doesn’t have a British name, the archetypal poor little rich boy does attend an English-language prep school whose uniforms and curriculum suggest the fantasy of a below-the-Equator Eton.
There’s a radical element, however, among the Catholic priests who run the school. One day, the headmaster brings some new boys into class and announces that the student body will now include these poor kids from a nearby shantytown. The shabbily dressed contingent includes Pedro Machuca (Ariel Mateluna), who becomes lonely Gonzalo’s best friend, as well as his ally against the inevitably blond schoolyard bully. Gonzalo begins spending time with Pedro’s family—which includes beguiling older sister Silvana (Manuela Martelli)—joining his new pals in selling cigarettes and flags to demonstrators on both sides of the country’s political divide. (Silvana makes it clear, however, that she prefers the leftists.) To Gonzalo, this street theater is great fun, but his parents and their peers are not amused, and they stage a counterattack that starts with a tumultuous PTA meeting and concludes with the overthrow of the new leftist president, Salvador Allende.
Much of Wood’s tale explores routine coming-of-age stuff—first drink, first kiss, first awareness of the class divide—while keeping the country’s growing desperation in the background. Then the coup occurs, and the film’s backbone stiffens. The racism that underlies much Latin American fratricide, insinuated gently by Gonzalo and Pedro’s shared passion for comics starring the Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian sidekick, becomes fiercely tangible when troops invade the Machuca family’s slum—and Gonzalo is once again reduced to the role of powerless observer. The movie’s last 10 minutes are suitably harrowing, and Gonzalo’s final words sharply illuminate his plight. If portions of Machuca are bland and schematic, its coda unflinchingly dismisses the notion that an 11-year-old can redeem the world his or her elders have made.CP