Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Like the protagonist of writer/director Patricia Rozema’s first and best-known feature, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, Camille has vivid dreams. One of those aquatic reveries opens When Night Is Falling, Rozema’s latest charmer, and after a few moments it becomes clear that Camille (Pascale Bussières) is not merely dreaming of slo-mo skinny-dipping. She’s dreaming of slo-mo skinny-dipping with another woman, a woman who reaches out and….
The sequence ends before anything particularly untoward happens, but it’s clear that such fancies are dispatches from Camille’s id. The young woman, however, has a stronger than average superego; she is, after all, a professor of mythology at a Calvinist college in Toronto, a city once reputed to be the most Protestant on earth. But Toronto has changed, and Camille is about to be plunged into its new-found exotica.
Camille has a buttoned-up life, but suddenly the pressure—both internal and external—becomes overwhelming. Her longtime boyfriend Martin (Henry Czerny) wants to marry her, and their boss, the Rev. DeBoer (David Fox), thinks she and Martin should jointly assume the college’s chaplainship. As if these developments weren’t stressful enough, her dog dies.
Weeping over the latter misfortune at a laundromat, Camille is comforted by Petra (Rachael Crawford), a flamboyant performer from a hip traveling circus. Camille ends up with the wrong laundry, and visits the circus to exchange Petra’s clothing for her own. Populated largely by intriguingly outlandish women, the Sirkus of Sorts turns out to be as much a lush anti-Canadian paradise as anything imagined by Atom Egoyan; its ringmaster, Timothy, is even played (hilariously) by writer/director Don McKellar, the tropical-bird-egg smuggler in Egoyan’s Exotica.
Petra confesses that she switched laundry bags on purpose, plies Camille with whiskey, and brazenly attempts to seduce her. Offended, Camille departs. When Petra shows up at her apartment later, however, the two kiss. After a few more false starts, the two fall into bed together—and Camille tells the board interviewing her and Martin for the new job that she can no longer support her church’s position on homosexuality.
Camille is an expert on goddesses, but Petra actually is one. Like Cupid, she sends her passion via bow and arrow, and carries her previously earthbound lover into the sky (in a hang glider). Camille, who knows how these stories are supposed to turn out, relates the myth of Cupid and Psyche as Petra massages her; later, they kiss as acrobats practice above. Frightened but unshackled, Camille makes love both with Martin and Petra, in scenes that are discreetly silhouetted yet erotically charged. After a confused Camille flirts (unconvincingly) with self-destruction, the film ends with promises of rebirth both symbolic and literal. (A note to the impatient: Don’t leave when the credits start to roll.)
On one level a simple girl-meets-girl romance, Night might seem reactionary if Camille’s new love were a man: The professor is prepared to abandon both her life and her career for the woman she loves. But then Camille’s repression is irretrievably bound up in her work, and her acceptance of the desires she previously banished to her dreams is not merely a matter of sexual emancipation. (Rozema reduces the traditional feminist critique to an arty dance number, in which Petra and two other women do a routine with hot irons.) Camille’s breakout is both autobiographical—Rozema is a graduate of Michigan’s Calvin College, also the alma mater of conspicuously tortured writer/director Paul Schrader—and metaphorical.
Where Mermaids took its title from T.S. Eliot, Night‘s comes from Ingmar Bergman. (Rozema’s funkier White Room presumably owes its name to Cream.) The Bergman speech that inspired it, derived from the end of Fanny and Alexander, matter-of-factly notes that “evil is breaking its chains and goes through the world like a wild dog….Therefore let us be happy, let us be kind, generous, affectionate, and good.”
Rozema’s version of this is much simpler: “You better hurry. The night is falling,” a hang-glider helper informs the women as Camille temporarily resists taking her first flight. Those inclined toward an angrier critique of Calvinism, heterosexism, and associated repressions may find this message altogether too simple. As in Mermaids, however, Rozema negotiates an expert course between dream and reality, anecdote and parable, whimsy and poignance. Night is sweet, but it’s not merely sweet.
Necessity is the mother of a series of recent Iranian films about children—mostly boys, of course—from Bashu to The Runner to Where Is My Friend’s House? In making films about children in small villages, Iranian directors avoid the religious and political issues entwined with adulthood and urbanity. That doesn’t mean, however, that these works are frivolous. On their small canvases, films like Ebrahim Foruzesh’s The Jar paint revealing portraits of Iranian (and human) society.
The Jar is indeed about a jar, the large one from which the students at a two-room schoolhouse in an isolated desert village drink water. The vessel is the focus of the kids’ rowdy assemblage on the fateful day when it’s discovered to be leaking. The immediate temptation is to blame the damage on one boy with a slingshot, but a cooler analysis soon prevails; the jar is just worn out, and has several small flaws. Then the kids’ attention shifts to the one among them whose father can fix the jar; the man won’t repair it for free, one child taunts, thus impugning the son’s honor—and beginning a series of insulting comments delivered by children imitating their parents.
The matter of the jar soon summons larger issues in the community. The teacher is respected for his education, but is also suspect because he’s an outsider; when he asks his students to bring eggs to school to help make a ceramic paste to repair the jar, some in the village see it as a sophisticate’s plan to bilk the simple villagers out of valuable foodstuffs. Later, after the jar is deemed irreparable, a local woman begins to raise money for a new one, only to offend some of the men with her assertiveness. Ultimately, the villagers gather in the school courtyard to bicker over the controversy, every bit as raucous as their children in the opening scene.
Director Foruzesh is an associate of Abbas Kiarostami, whose sweet, simple Where Is My Friend’s House? led to the self-conscious, even Brechtian And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees, both films inspired by events relating to their predecessors. The Jar, however, is artful but not arty. Both Foruzesh’s tale and its presentation are elegantly direct.
Like many Iranian directors, Foruzesh seems indebted to Italian neorealism; he shares its emphasis on children and use of amateur performers. Unlike other Iranian films about childhood, however, The Jar doesn’t highlight a single wide-eyed boy. It’s the story of two communities—the school and the village—and sometimes a female may lead them: It’s a girl (one of only two visible at the school) who ends the egg controversy, and a woman who organizes the fund-raising campaign. That’s just one of the ways in which this film is not so simple as it initially seems.
Casino is approximately as long as Night and The Jar combined, but in its way it’s a small film too. Though its wide-screen compositions are epic, this gangster chronicle is essentially the story of only three people: Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), an East Coast bookie who finds his true calling running a Las Vegas casino for the Midwest mob; Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), the high-strung hustler Sam foolishly compels to marry him; and Sam’s longtime friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), a sociopathic enforcer who doesn’t understand the difference between “low profile” and “shallow grave.”
Of the three characters, only Pesci’s strongly resembles the one he played in Goodfellas. Still, Casino is basically a rambling, less urgent version of that film. Both were fictionalized by director Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi from one of the latter’s nonfiction books, and both are set in a ’60s and ’70s evoked largely through pop music. Where Goodfellas was the story of a moral (mis)education, however, in Casino, the characters just become more so: Sam more embattled and uptight, Ginger and Nicky more wanton and foolish. This lack of psychological progression is apparently intentional, since it’s echoed by the music’s chronological incoherence; the soundtrack hops from the Rolling Stones’ “Heart of Stone” (1965) to Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange” (1957) to Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug” (1975) in a matter of minutes. (The frenetic, chopped-up score suggests Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, while the hot, burned-out highlights recall JFK.)
Scorsese doesn’t enlist music here just to evoke period. He also uses it to comment on the proceedings in an archly playful way. Casino may be “adapted from a true story,” as an opening title promises, but the director emphasizes its artificiality. The film is heavily narrated by Sam and Nicky—one of whom, the opening scene strongly suggests, is already dead—and uses both voice-over and titles puckishly: A narrator’s reminiscences end in a midsentence “urk” when his character begins to be beaten, and the voice-over comment that all this happened “back home years ago” segues into a flashback introduced with a title that reads “back home years ago.” Casino is at times a swaggering tough-guy entertainment, but such narrative pranks echo ’60s avant-gardists. (Compare, for example, Godard’s Weekend, in which characters stop what they’re doing in order to listen to the voice-over.)
Ultimately, Casino offers little more than such playfulness. The story of how three of the town’s prime movers—in the words of one of them—“fucked it all up” is less interesting than the presence of a supporting cast of over-the-hill Vegas types (Don Rickles, Alan King, Dick Smothers playing parts; Frankie Avalon, Jerry Vale, and Steve Allen playing themselves) and Scorsese’s impossible camera viewpoints (including from inside such tight spots as a floor safe and coke straw) and flamboyant cuts (from raging Nicky to a roaring tiger, for example).
The film is punctuated by outbursts of torture and murder, and the characters all crack spectacularly: Sam raging at a cook who didn’t evenly distribute the blueberries in the casino’s muffins, Nicky slashing a disrespectful bystander’s neck with a fountain pen, and Ginger drowning Stone’s ice-maiden persona in swells of booze, cocaine, and bile. No matter how many million Sam has stashed in an LA bank, however, Casino demonstrates that these three are small-timers. Their grandest indulgences are nothing compared to those of Scorsese, who’s having so much fun with this saga that he frequently forgets to let the viewers in on it.