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Phillip Noyce is a skilled filmmaker, but if you looked at his Hollywood career, which has included Sliver and The Saint, you’d have to assume he’s one of the worst judges of scripts ever to qualify for a Director’s Guild card. Given a small budget and a screenplay of political import, however, the Australian director is transfigured. His first two features, Newsfront and Heatwave, were sharp and substantial. Now, 20 years later, Noyce has rehabilitated himself with two new films about the bad old days, Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American, which is scheduled to open in February.
Although set in 1931, Rabbit-Proof Fence concerns an outrage that continued until 1971: Australian authorities seized children of mixed aboriginal and European lineage from their parents and sent them to “settlements” where they were trained to be servants and laborers. The idea was that “half-caste” kids were midway on the evolution to a superior (that is, white) condition, and that their genes couldn’t be allowed to backslide by mingling with those of darker-skinned people. According to Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia A.O. Neville, blackness could be “bred out” in only three generations.
As the film begins, Neville (Kenneth Branagh) has turned his attention to three girls who live near Jigalong Depot: 14-year-old Molly (Everlyn Sampi), her 8-year-old sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and their 10-year-old cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan). They’re the children of men who passed through the region while working on the movie’s titular fence, which still bisects the country from top to bottom. (It was designed to protect pastureland from a plague of rabbits, which multiplied disastrously in predator-free Australia after being introduced by clueless colonizers.) Constable Riggs (Jason Clarke) is sent to rip the girls from their mothers, in a scene that justifies the children’s hissed name for the Chief Protector: Mr. Devil.
At the Moore River Native Settlement, the new internees are commanded to abandon their language—”We don’t use that jabber here”—and taught how to sing happily about “the old plantation.” The sounds of a whipping warn the girls about what happens to runaways, as does the presence of sad-faced aboriginal tracker Moodoo (David Gulpilil, who has appeared in two more mystic-minded films about the collision of black and white cultures in Australia, Walkabout and The Last Wave). Molly refuses to stay, however, and the other two hesitantly follow her when she begins the three-month, 1,500-mile trek home. After some initial wanderings, they learn that the fence is nearby and realize that they can follow it north to Jigalong.
Adapted by Christine Olsen from a book by Doris Pilkington Garimara (the daughter of the real-life Molly), Rabbit-Proof Fence is a tale of triumph in the ever-present shadow of a larger tragedy. Even if Molly can outwit Moodoo and the girls can get enough to eat and drink to survive in the arid prairies and deserts of western Australia, there’s nothing to prevent Neville from abducting them again. (Exactly what happens to the trio is best left to the movie’s epilogue, which movingly links the fictionalized film to documentary reality.)
Noyce enlisted Peter Gabriel to compose the feature’s eclectic but not overbearing score and frequent Wong Kar-wai collaborator Christopher Doyle (who also shot The Quiet American) to film its sun-toasted earth and vast widescreen skies in desaturated color. Yet neither they nor Branagh, in a slightly quieter variation on the self-deluding oaf he played in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, provides the movie’s dominant sensibility. That belongs to the three lead performers, none of them professional actors and two of them—Sampi and Sansbury—the children of women who were themselves removed from their families as “half-castes.” They’re entirely convincing as girls who simply want to return to their mothers, but their performances—as well as their very presence—also deliver a powerful reproach to the paternalism that has bedeviled many countries besides Australia.
Pedro Almodovar likes to watch. His latest film, the stylistically poised but thematically wobbly Talk to Her, opens with a curtain rising and introduces its two principal characters, doughy Benigno (Javier Camara) and stubbly Marco (Dario Grandinetti), as they sit in a theater, observing an overwrought Pina Bausch dance piece. As always with Almodovar, it’s hard to separate what’s intended to be amusing schlock from what’s meant as poignant sentiment. So the director cues the viewer by having Marco weep. Like so much of what follows, the Bausch piece is kitsch that we’re supposed to understand as moving. (In addition to Bausch’s choreography, Talk to Her includes trash TV, a song by fussy Brazilian art-samba chanteur Caetano Veloso, and a 7-foot-high latex vagina.)
Talk to Her is the first Almodovar film in more than a decade to have men as its central figures. The Spanish writer-director has come to prefer women—or rather, “women”—because theirs is the realm of melodrama. His heroines tend to be constructed from a handful of alleged feminine attributes, notably nurturing, hysteria, and I-will-survive-ability. This time, though, it’s the men who succor and fret: Benigno and Marco’s true loves spend most of the movie in comas. Benigno has been caring for apparently brain-dead Alicia (Leonor Watling), formerly an aspiring ballerina, for four years when Marco comes to the same clinic to visit Lydia (Rosario Flores), a mannish female matador severely injured in a bullfight. Benigno believes he knows what will benefit both Marco and Lydia: “Talk to her,” he counsels. At least that’s what he does with Alicia.
There’s no way of discussing what’s objectionable about Talk to Her without revealing some significant plot points, so readers who wish to avoid such revelations should go read Savage Love now. Benigno’s talk-to-her strategy might be suitable for house plants, but the men’s relationship with the comatose women is more problematic than watering a fern. In fact, they have no claims on the patients to whom they’re so ostentatiously devoted. Marco is a journalist who began an affair with Lydia while writing a profile of her, but she was just about to tell him that she had reconciled with her previous lover when she was gored. As for Benigno, he’s essentially a stalker. He used to watch Alicia dance in the rehearsal studio across the street from his apartment; after she was hit by a car, he managed to get the job as her nurse. He bathes, dries, and massages Alicia’s naked body—apparently even changing her tampons—and reassures her father that he’s gay.
Devoutly worshipping a woman you can never know is the kind of sentimental torment that Almodovar relishes. After all, a lithe, lovely creature such as Alicia seems quite unlikely to return the affection of pudgy, emotionally stunted Benigno. When he becomes Alicia’s nurse, however, it allows him more than just the maternal role Almodovar celebrated in movies such as Live Flesh and All About My Mother: It also gives him the power to abuse. Inspired by a mock silent film that is Talk to Her’s principal hint of the old, more flamboyantly transgressive Almodovar, Benigno rapes Alicia.
Talk to Her isn’t the only Almodovar film to exalt rape; so did Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. Indeed, the director’s dedication to what an earlier film of his calls “the law of desire” always puts him on the side of the character who obsessively craves another—no matter what the other person wants. That Alicia is comatose makes this tale especially creepy, but her unconsciousness just throws the filmmaker’s customary concerns into higher relief. (“A woman’s brain is a mystery,” says Benigno, apparently speaking for his creator.) Almodovar often deploys characters for his own amusement, treating his players with the capriciousness of farce while attempting to invoke an aura of tragedy. Ultimately, the director uses the women to bring Marco and Benigno to the brink of declaring their (literally impossible) love for each other, while devising a fate for the latter that aims to ameliorate his crime. Benigno’s only real defense, though, is that Alicia was not his victim, but Almodovar’s. CP