Movies

Who'll Stop the Rain, Madame Rosa, Mahler

|

• The plot line of WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN? is carefully laid out, and the acting (Tuesday Weld, Richard Nolte, Michael Moriarty, Anthony Zerbe) is convincingly enough done. Yet seeing the film is hardly the kind of experience one could recommend. The opening sequence is a scene of carnage in Vietnam. The rest of the film, which takes place in the United States, is full of gratuitous brutality and sadism. The viewer is treated repeatedly to scenes of people "shooting up." Except for the Arizona scenery, there isn't much that is not unrelievedly depressing. Sometimes, as in a documentary, the viewer should watch it anyway because it is history and he should know what happened and why; this would be the case if there were a film about Soviet labor camps. But in the present instance, there is not even that justification for seeing it.

In Sands of Iwo Jima John Wayne dies after holding the flag aloft in victory. In this film Nolte dies in a similar pose, but without the slightest trappings of heroism. His death is the end result of his involvement with the heroin traffic out of Vietnam. Even before the end, the effect of this traffic spreads its tentacles to many people, and blights the lives of everyone involved in it. Perhaps this is the moral of the film, but if so it doesn't emerge very clearly. The film makers were more interested in sensationalism than in moral lessons.

Art should transform even the most intractable subject matter so that seeing it provides satisfaction; witnessing a work of art even with an unpleasant theme is not a masochistic act of self-torture. Films dealing with repellent themes need not themselves be repellent. A painting of a garbage dump can, through the miracle of artistry, become beautiful. This one remains just a garbage dump.

• MADAME ROSA takes place in Paris. A survivor of a Nazi death-camp, then a Paris prostitute who fell in love with a man who left her penniless, Madame Rosa is now old and alone, and takes care of children as a source of income. The children come and go, but the Arab boy Mohammed (Momo) stays with her, for he was abandoned there by his parents in his babyhood and they have never returned. Now the old Jewish woman and the Arab child have only one another, and the woman hovers ever closer to death.

The strange alliance of Jew and Arab is the occasion for a good deal of humor in the film, as well as worldly wisdom to the effect that the ethnic difference means nothing ("The reason they've been fighting so long," she says, "is that they look so much alike"). It also makes for powerful drama. The old woman, long since abandoned by everyone, loves only the Arab child; and he in turn, also abandoned, loves no one but her, though knowing that soon he will have to go through life without her.

While feigning indifference, she is desperately afraid of losing him. She refuses to go to the hospital, not knowing what will happen to him. "I didn't sell my body for 35 years to donate it to the doctors at 65."

Though he often goes out on the street and talks with the whores at Pigalle, he always returns to her. The doctor says to him, "She is becoming senile; she will soon be like a vegetable." She overhears part of the conversation. "What's that about vegetables?" she asks him later. "He says you should eat lots of them," the boy replies.

A young doctor's wife converses with him in the park. Feeling sorry for him, she offers to take him home to meet her husband and children. Suddenly he turns away. "Oh, you have someone," he says, crestfallen. Then he would be rejected again. He will only be with someone who has nobody.

There are countless touches like this, each one brief, but always probing in psychological depth and human insight. They unify the film and etch the characters in concrete images of great poignancy. A sureness and delicacy of touch prevents the story from crossing the edge of bathos and keeps it always running powerful and true. The totally satisfying outcome could have been brought about only by a rare combination of a lean and beautiful script which never wastes a line, an economy of directorial means which never wastes a minute, and a series of remarkable performances which put us at once in tune with the characters. Simone Signoret, best known in the English-speaking world for her role in Room at the Top, but always a great actress, here enacts her finest role. Samy Ben Youb as the Arab child also performs with great sensitivity and restraint, reserving the full outpouring of feeling for the end.

All in all, this is the most gripping emotional drama to appear on the screen in many months. One should be prepared to laugh, but also to cry, sometimes both at the same time. One should also be prepared for a memorable experience, if one doesn't mind spending two hours in the immediate area of the emotional jugular.

• Films about the lives of composers have not had a distinguished history. In the 1940's A Song to Remember, which introduced Cornel Wilde to the screen, was a sanitized life of Chopin, attributing such ethereal motives to all its principals as to be quite beyond belief. The French film The Life of Beethoven was pompous and melodramatic to the point of absurdity, and redeemed only by the acting of the great Harry Baur. In the 1960's an almost equally overblown German film The Magic Fire was a somewhat more accurate (but highly selective and oversimplified) life of Richard Wagner, although every minor incident was elevated into a cosmic catastrophe. Probably the best of the lot was the English film Song without End, starring Dirk Bogarde as Franz Liszt, perhaps because the composer's life contained more of the kind of action that makes for cinematic excitement. All these films were redeemed by the renditions of marvelous music; but for this one would be more rewarded, and with much more acoustic fidelity, by staying home and playing the music on one's own hi-fi set.

And now we have MAHLER, completed more than three years ago but not released generally in the United States until long after its completion. It is directed by the English jack-of-all-trades Ken Russell, fresh from his "triumphs" in The Devils and Tommy. The film tells us more about Russell's mind than about Mahler's. Possessed of a vivid imagination, Russell is at his best in presenting panoplies of colors and shapes succeeding one another rapidly in time, so that one is overcome to the point of numbness by the unrelieved cascade of visual sensations. This, however, is not the quality that should predominate in a story of Gustav Mahler's life. A film biography of Mahler should attempt at least to capture the kind of tortured genius that created some of the most moving songs and soul-searing symphonies ever written. Into the vast complexity of Mahler's psyche we get very little insight in this film. The best one can say is that the unknown actor who portrays him does look like Mahler.

The backgrounds are visually stunning, as indeed are the mountains and lake regions of Austria in which Mahler lived. But why do long sections of the film deal with Mahler's fantasies? Not one of them seems to me consonant with the real Mahler. One of them, in which Mahler grovels before a succession of huge Teutonic bitch-goddesses resembling Wagner's Valkyries (with Nazi insignia!) is so ridiculously out of character that one does not know whether to laugh at its absurdity or weep at the desecration of a great man. Nor does the film stand up very well as a unity; it is a series of fragments which never come together. And why are the same passages from the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies endlessly repeated, when there is such a rich store of other works by Mahler on which to draw? And why is there nothing after the Sixth Symphony? The Ninth and Tenth, along with the song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde, are (in my opinion and that of many others) his greatest and profoundest works. It is possible that seeing the film may stimulate some viewers who are unacquainted with Mahler's works to listen to them for themselves, but I can think of no other good reason for going to see this picture.

A film biography of a complex genius like Mahler cannot be attempted lightly. To do it justice would require the psychological insight of a Jung, the dramatic genius of a director like Fritz Lang, and the ability to create and sustain a mood and atmosphere such as only a few (first and foremost, the Danish director Carl Dreyer) have possessed. Such an enterprise is far beyond the powers of a Ken Russell, whose special abilities practically begin and end with the presentation of sensory (not necessarily sensual) orgies. The result can be described as "genius viewed from the point of view of a hack."