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Most viewers of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s two extraordinary fiction films, La Promesse and Rosetta, favor one over the other. Although both are set in grim working-class Belgium and informed by the brothers’ years of documentary filmmaking, only the former has an uplifting outcome: A boy who’s being groomed by his father for a career of exploiting illegal immigrants is redeemed by his promise to help a dying worker’s wife. That may explain why the edgy but (relatively) crowd-pleasing La Promesse reached Washington in timely fashion, whereas the bleaker but no less compelling Rosetta is arriving almost 10 months after its New York opening. The film is part of the new Visions Cinema’s “Catch-Up Festival,” whose monthlong cinematic bounty will compensate for a particularly dreary summer at the movies.
Those who prefer Rosetta to La Promesse argue that the latter’s good deed is thematically dishonest, a bit of Hollywood glitter improbably spotted in the debris of the Dardenne brothers’ favored location, the industrial, immigrant-dense city of Seraing. Certainly the writer-directors’ second feature has no room for such a development, but that’s not because it’s ideologically more pure. The film can’t show a transfiguring relationship because the camera almost never leaves the gravitational field of its driven title character, who’s played with fierce tenacity by first-time actress Emilie Dequenne. (At Cannes, where Rosetta won the 1999 Golden Palm, Dequenne shared the Best Actress prize with one of the nonactor stars of another stark Francophone drama, Humanity.) Rosetta is a one-woman show, but it finds an entire world in its obsessive namesake.
Rosetta does know a few people, one of whom is the boss who has just fired her as the film begins. The audience arrives too late to know why the fiery 17-year-old has been sacked, but certainly it’s not because Rosetta doesn’t want to work. As Benoit Dervaux’s handheld camera tracks her at uncomfortably close range, Rosetta literally clings to her job, until two uniformed guards drag her out.
For Rosetta, a regular job denotes a “normal life,” which she insists is all she wants. She lives in a trailer park on the edge of town, with a mother (Anne Yernaux) who constantly drinks and sometimes turns tricks. The film carefully documents Rosetta’s routine: where she hides her boots, how she secretly enters the trailer park, how she catches the occasional fish. She’s a contemporary exurban Robinson Crusoe, exiled on a desert island of her own making.
Compared with this existence, a gig selling waffles from a van seems like salvation. When a guy who runs such a van befriends her, Rosetta can’t help but think of ways to take his job away. At one point, it looks as if this well-meaning acquaintance (Fabrizio Rongione) might drown in the pond where Rosetta fishes, and she waits a long, options-pondering moment before helping him out. Ultimately, she finds a less dramatic way to betray the only person who’s done her any kindness.
Rosetta is feral, determined, and overwhelming, both narratively and conceptually. This rigorous, intense film has no musical soundtrack; it’s scored to the teenager’s heavy breathing, and punctuated by her outbursts of rage and pain. (She has a recurring stomach ailment that surely must be stoked by tension.) Her quest can be seen as spiritual or existential; J. Hoberman compared the film to Bresson’s Mouchette, and the Dardennes have likened their heroine to “K,” the protagonist of Kafka’s The Castle. Despite the filmmakers’ background in socially conscious documentary, however, one thing that the film is not is Marxist: For Rosetta, work is the only thing that isn’t alienating.
Ziad Doueiri’s West Beirut is also the story of a youngster looking for a career, but in this case, the circumstances are more extreme than the psychology. Tarek (Rami Doueiri, the writer-director’s younger brother) is a fledgling filmmaker, shooting Super 8 footage on the streets of his town. That town is Beirut, alas, and the year is 1975. Soon, 15-year-old Tarek’s playful resentment of the French school he attends is supplanted by full-blown war between Muslims and Christians. For Tarek and his volatile friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas), the death and destruction simply mean that school’s out forever. The worst news is that the only shop in Beirut that still processes Super 8 film is on the other side—the Christian side—of the newly established “green line” between the city’s east and west sectors.
The obvious precedent for this wartime romp is John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, which celebrated the liberating aspects of the Battle of Britain. West Beirut is a little rougher, because it documents the community-destroying effects of civil war, as well as the marriage-testing consequences of Tarek’s father’s refusal to seek refuge outside Beirut. Still, the movie is mostly concerned with the pleasures of adolescent freedom and discovery. A hormone-activated Tarek surreptitiously films his sexy new aunt’s décolletage and happily makes the acquaintance of a new neighbor, May (Rola Al Amin), who’s too pretty to ignore even if the cross around her neck is a danger sign. Briefly, he thinks he’s found the city’s one haven from ideology: a famed bordello whose proprietor is based on a genuine figure in Beirut lore. (To get there safely, one merely waves an item of white lingerie to ward off any snipers.)
Doueiri, who actually didn’t get his first Super 8 camera until he arrived in California, left Beirut for the United States in 1983; he’s worked widely as a cameraman, notably on all of Quentin Tarantino’s films. His approach to Beirut’s—and his own—history is impeccably cinematic, limited to events that can be apprehended on film. The script, which the director estimates is 90 percent autobiographical, doesn’t attempt to depict issues beyond the perceptions of a teenager or force personal impressions into a traditional narrative arc. Doueiri describes the movie as a sort of montage, based on vivid images of his childhood. “That’s why there’s a linear progression and not a classical dramatic progression,”
Although its focus never expands beyond Tarek’s friends, family, and neighbors, West Beirut isn’t quite so guileless as it initially seems. The film actually covers eight years in the history of Beirut, although Tarek, Omar, and May don’t age. The movie is rooted in universal impulses and specific occurrences, but its dreamlike logic suggests that it’s unspooling in Doueiri’s head.
Robert Greenwald says he was inspired to make Steal This Movie! by his two teenage daughters, who told him they were fascinated by the ’60s but actually knew little about the era. Well, thanks a lot, Dad. This biopic of New Left clown-activist (and Steal This Book author) Abbie Hoffman is a headlong series of episodes that will probably perplex anyone who didn’t live through the decade or at least do some research.
Blustering semicoherently like a lesser Oliver Stone flick, Steal This Movie! is always watchable and frequently rousing; Greenwald chose the right decade for a breathless, superficial, quasi-political romp. Marshalling old film and TV clips—both actual and faked—and agit-pop that ranges from the Fugs and Phil Ochs to Hendrix and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, the film captures something of the heady spirit of ’60s youth-culture politics, both earnest and absurd and reveling in the contradiction. What it doesn’t nail is Hoffman himself.
It fails to do so in part because the Yippie leader is played with laborious exuberance by Vincent D’Onofrio, utilizing a distracting accent that’s part Boston, part Savannah, and part Neptune. D’Onofrio’s performance, game as it is, doesn’t do much to ground Bruce Graham’s script, which is based on Marty Jezer’s Hoffman biography and a collection of letters exchanged by the fugitive rebel and his wife, Anita Hoffman. (She’s played by Janeane Garofalo, who tries real hard, too.) The film seeks to locate the private Hoffman in a logical place for introspection: the seven years he spent underground after fleeing a prison term for dealing cocaine. Yet it keeps getting distracted by the public Hoffman, the jester who nominated a pig for president, tried to exorcise the Pentagon, and threw dollar bills onto the New York Stock Exchange floor to see if the capitalists would scramble greedily. (They did.)
If the personal is political, then Hoffman’s radical stunts probably sprung from his bipolar disorder. Hiding out under the name Barry Freed and nurtured by new girlfriend Johanna Lawrenson (a blonded Jeanne Tripplehorn) while still married to Anita and trying to raise their son, Amerika, Hoffman eventually got a prescription for lithium. This emotional struggle is only sketched, however, and the revelation that Hoffman’s 1989 death was probably a suicide is treated as an afterthought.
That’s typical of Steal This Movie!: It covers all the essential points, but in a haphazard way that suggests that Greenwald (who’s best known for the kitschy Xanadu) and Graham not only don’t understand Hoffman but don’t even understand how they feel about him. Was he bigger than life or smaller than the movement he rode to fame? Was he more or less important than such cohorts as Jerry Rubin (Kevin Corrigan), Tom Hayden (played here by his own son, Troy Garity), and, uh, Stew Albert (The Tao of Steve’s Donal Logue)? The film hasn’t decided, just as it hasn’t chosen between re-creating the highlights reel of Hoffman’s career or sticking with its Citizen Kane-like structure, in which a fictionalized reporter (Alan Van Sprang) investigates Hoffman’s claims of government harassment only to uncover the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program to undermine the Yippies, Black Panthers, and other insurgents who riled Nixon. (“I want these Jew boys toasted” is the president’s directive, voiced here by an impersonator.) But then a movie that’s an enthusiastic mess is not such an inappropriate testament to Abbie Hoffman’s life and work. CP