â€¢ Stevie â€¢ Midnight Express â€¢ A Slave of Love â€¢ Blood Brothers
â€¢ Glenda Jackson is STEVIE, Mona Washburne her aunt, Trevor Howard a friendâ€"excellent performances all. That's about all the cast there is, in this film taken from a play that is drawn from the life of the British poet Peggy ("Stevie") Smith. The actors speak directly to the audience, as they sometimes do in the theater, and intermittently to each other.
Stevie Smith was hardly known outside of England and (in my opinion anyway) wasn't all that great a poet. Compared to Emily Dickinson, whose life hers resembles, her poems are fairly prosy.
But, unlike most films, the gut issues are all there: life, love, death, philosophy, marriage, loneliness. They are all eloquently commented on in the film, and with complete honesty and absence of cant. Many people who never got to see the play (in London) will want to see the film for the expression of these thoughts alone.
There is one recurring prop: a train going through a dark tunnel. Every time it appears there is a light at the end of it, except the last time, when both the film and her life come to an end. Yet one does not feel at film's end that one has really understood this woman, what made her do the things she did, or why in the midst of London she chose a life of such reclusiveness and solitude.
The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door.
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I've known her from an ample nation
Then close the valves of her attention
â€¢ Touted in advance as the most important film of 1978, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS is far from living up to that claim, although it is highly dramatic and often exciting. It comes off as a kind of Turkish Papillon. As one degradation follows another in a foreign prison, the ability of the viewer to react empathetically is gradually anesthetized. Primarily for that reason, the first half of the film is much more interesting than the second. Since the film is based on fact (an American, William Hayes, imprisoned in Turkey for drug smuggling), we know that he ultimately escapes, and the only question is how much more he will have to endure before this happens.
Apparently the Turkish government was in a snit at the United States because of the latter's "unreasonable" stance in the Turkish-Greek Cyprus conflict, and was determined to make an example of an American by sentencing him to a long prison term. The protagonist therefore appears as an innocent pawn in a game of international intrigue, and the drug charge as more or less a pretext. The film concerns the pawn in this game, imprisoned for years under conditions that can be mildly described as ghastlyâ€"yet not nearly as ghastly as in (for example) The Count of Monte Cristo; but on account of the greater realism permitted in films during the last decade, a greater variety of excruciating detail is depicted before the viewer's eyes.
Since there was almost an international incident with the Turkish government over the filming of Hayes's book, the actual shooting took place in Malta. Much of the dialogue is in Turkish (untranslated), and some of the English isn't very easy to understand. On the other hand, the background music is unusually well adapted to the story, and the finest acting comes from the British actor Larry Hurt, costar of one of the best and least-noted British films of recent years, Ten Rillington Street. But the main content of the film is brutality and terror, and the end effect is, not unexpectedly, almost unrelievedly depressing. Those who revel in such protracted misery as is shown in Papillon and dramatic depiction of drug-trafficking as in Who'll Stop the Rain? will be able in this film to treat themselves to a double dose of misery with which to empathize.
â€¢ In the last years of Czarist Russia, many visitors to that land remarked that the standard of living in rural Russia was higher than that of Western Europe; Tchekov, who had seen both, commented on this also. But by 1921, after the Revolution, Russia was still riven by civil war; the White armies were battling the Red armies; and with the breakdown of supply and distribution, many people ate human flesh to survive, and millions of others starved.
And now we have a Soviet film, set in this time, but taking place in the comparatively self-sufficient Crimea. Like Black and White in Color, this is a film about filming: an absurd little troupe of filmmakers doing penny-dreadful melodramas, oblivious to the old order crashing all around them. A SLAVE OF LOVE is the movie they are making, in this film of the same title. At first the movie-within-a-the same title. At first the movie-within-a-movie plot seems absurd and trivial (though with some deftly comic touches), but bit by bit as the characters get involved, usually against their will, in the political loyalties of the day, the harsh realities of the civil war crowd in, and even the heroine of the melodrama (Elena Solovei) is tragically drawn into it.
No film, of course, can be made in the USSR without the approval and sponsorship of the Soviet government. Early Soviet filmsâ€"Shors, The Road to Life, etc.â€"were highly propagandistic, and even the masterpieces of Eisenstein (for example, Potemkin) and Pudovkin (for example, Mother) were thinly disguised propaganda. Compared with them, this film is simply a human story that could have been made anywhere. There are precedents for it: one of the most popular of Soviet films overseas, Ballad of a Soldier (1959), though it dealt with World War II, was in no way propaganda, and neither was the greatest of all Soviet films, The Childhood of Maxim Gorki (1939). The present film is not in the same league with any of these; the film itself is much less remarkable than the fact that it was made. The Whites do inflict somewhat more cruelty in it than the Reds, but at least it is not denied that there were atrocities on both sidesâ€"which is, I suppose, some kind of progress. But then, I have sat with film audiences in Moscow and Irkutsk when they laughed at propaganda films; perhaps denying the obvious would be just too ridiculous.
â€¢ Sometimes the whole is better than each of its parts, because of superior organization; more frequently, the parts are better than the whole, because the thing hasn't been put together right. The latter is the case with BLOOD BROTHERS, a film with very strong individual scenes but whose total effect is dispersed in an attempt to delineate too large a variety of scenes and characters.
It is a family picture, not in the sense that the whole family should see it (its R rating is well deserved), but because it deals with a segment of the life of one family, an Italian family in New York City. The family tensions and conflicts heat the screen almost to incandescence.
The tragedy illustrated in the film is one of noncommunication within a family. Few of the problems would have remained insoluble if those involved had simply sat down calmly and talked things out rationally with each other. But in a highly volatile domestic situation, this was the one alternative never adopted.
The main character, the elder son (Richard Gere), is torn between his father's trade, the construction industry, and what he really enjoys doing, supervising children. The best scene in the film occurs in a hospital ward in which, in a charming ceremony that fascinates the children, he makes them all "blood brothers." The conflict between what he wants to do and what his father expects him to do is powerfully delineated.
The mother, without intending it, terrorizes her eight-year-old son, and when as a result he can't eat, she punishes him cruelly. The older brother has no idea of what is going on psychologically but only tries to protect his small brother in his own incoherent way.
The father routinely fornicates about town, and when the mother learns of it and attempts a similar act in retaliation, her husband beats her to a pulp. Seldom has the "double standard" in sexual morality been more dramatically depicted on the screen.
There are a few too many bar scenes with drinking, fighting, and exchanging obscenities and other attempts by males to sustain their macho images. But if you can endure these scenes, there are other ones that are moving and humanly revealing, orchestrated with a wide variety of raw human emotions and amazingly penetrating characterizations.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".