written and directed by Lucrecia Martel with Mercedes Morᮠand Graciela Borges runs March 8-21 at Grand Illusion
directed by Mira Nair with Naseeruddin Shah, Vasundhara Das, and Vijay Raaz opens March 8 at Harvard Exit
IN THE WAKE of Am鬩e and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, foreign cinema now seems so friendly and accessible. Better still, owing to the aggressive marketing of Miramax and Sony Pictures Classics (both divisions of global media giants), it's profitable! Dragon is the highest-grossing foreign-language film ever (with $125 million in U.S. revenues). Am鬩e has pulled in some $25 million to date (tops among all French imports), with that total sure to increase after its five Oscar nominations.
What happened to dour old Bergman and Bresson? They're gone, baby, gone— replaced by a new wave of English-speaking international auteurs who study Variety and surf the Web with their cell phones. The old barriers to translation have fallen like the Berlin Wall, and once distinct genres and national sensibilities are blurring together. What's the difference between a Hong Kong action flick with Western actors and a Hollywood action flick directed by a Hong Kong master? Increasingly little in one big international showbiz market.
CASE IN POINT: the new matrimonial comedy by Mira Nair, best known for her grim '88 breakthrough, Salaam Bombay!, whose street-urchin realism is a far cry from the multiplex-ready Monsoon Wedding. Indeed, the downbeat Bombay represents old, proudly unassimilated world cinema while Wedding is its cheerfully commodified future. Like those action flicks produced and panned at home but profitable abroad (e.g. Collateral Damage), Monsoon is a calculated export product.
Here, beleaguered father-of-the-bride Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah) has arranged a suitable marriage for his daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das, a famous Indian pop singer but weak actress). The groom, Hemant, is a handsome, presentable yuppie from Houston, where he's prospered in software or silicon or something suitably high-tech. He's the kind of guy any parent would want their daughter to marry, even if it means losing her to Texas.
Meanwhile, reluctant Cosmo-reading bride Aditi still pines for her married TV-host lover, whom we meet in a roundtable discussion on—what else?—globalization. (Much of Monsoon's dialogue is in English, common to India's educated middle class.) The obvious tension here—and Monsoon is nothing if not obvious—lies in whether Aditi will choose a self-indulgent Western-style freedom or assent to the wishes of her traditionalist parents.
Straining to be Altman-esque, Nair's picture bogs down in extended-family subplotting as a swarm of relatives arrives to celebrate the impending wedding. "I don't even know who's who half the time," protests the hapless groom; he doesn't know the half of it. Is that burgeoning romance between Rahul and Ayesha between strangers? Cousins? Siblings? It takes a long time to clarify.
During low-comic interludes, crass wedding planner P.K. Dube (Vijay Raaz) screams into his cell phone and berates his workers. Yet his shy romance with the Vermas' illiterate, unaffected maid, Alice, baldly symbolizes how tradition can supposedly redeem modernity.
Even as it glibly invokes globalization and its cultural-economic conflicts, Monsoon reaches a shallow sitcom resolution dressed in colorful Hindu attire. The final nuptial union might appear to reconcile opposites: the fractious, squabbling Punjabi family's traditionalism and cool information-age mercantilism. But the movie itself betrays which force has won. Aditi will soon be driving an SUV in a Houston suburb. The happy ending is a product designed in Hollywood.
Still, Monsoon does have its charms. Nair relishes the festive colors of decorative orange marigolds (which P.K. occasionally pops into his mouth as a snack), magenta and blue saris, and a billowing white wedding tent canopy. There's joyous dancing, tuneful music, and photogenic rain (hence the title), plus occasional unmotivated urban montages of teeming, impoverished Delhi—far more evocative than anything else in the film.
Indeed, Monsoon's most effective scene comes when we follow P.K. home to his sad apartment and reproachful mother. Here we see a hardworking, low-caste man who can't marry his way to wealth or America. Globalization may put a cell phone in his hand, but it provides little for his pocket.
SEVERAL TIME ZONES and an entire hemisphere away, La Ci鮡ga also concerns a big, messy family impacted by globalization. Here, however, unlike India's striving dot-com middle class, this extended Argentine clan has collapsed as completely as the nation's economy. The title of Lucrecia Martel's debut feature translates as "The Swamp," which aptly describes the squalid, tropical, sticky milieu. With its plunging peso, street riots, and IMF basket-case status, Argentina is now a world leader in plastic surgery and psychotherapy—denial, in other words.
So it's hardly surprising that one of Ci鮡ga's two central characters, 50-something Mecha (Graciela Borges), now staggers around the fetid pool of her overgrown country estate swilling booze, ignoring her hair-dying husband, Gregorio, and regularly receiving visits from her city cousin Tali (Mercedes Morᮩ. We meet Mecha following an all-night (all-day?) poolside bender with husband and friends. Bottles and ashtrays litter the area; dragged aluminum lounge chairs grate on the patio surface. No glamour-puss, shit-faced Mecha trips and falls on an armful of glasses, getting some nasty cuts. Later, wearing dark glasses indoors, she worries that the scars will ruin her d飯lletage.
When Tali visits with her own kids, there seem to be about 20 feral children scampering about, bloodied, mud-covered, brandishing shotguns, and followed by mangy dogs. (One of Mecha's boys has already lost an eye.) Should social workers be called? Does anyone have a job? Nobody seems to care—unless they run out of ice for their drinks.
Given such an atmosphere of doom, and two such different mothers (Tali is the more responsible and protective), Ci鮡ga contrasts what two women do—or don't do—to keep their families intact in the face of rising apathy and encroaching poverty. Metaphorically, their families represent Argentina, with an exhausted older Peronist generation wallowing in dissolution and despair. The kids could go either way—like their parents, or down the path to reform. Mecha's teenage daughter Momi bonds with her family's serene Native American maid, Isabel, seemingly the only sane member of her household. In return, Mecha heaps abuse upon the servant, intent on maintaining her family sense of racial and colonial superiority.
As in Faulkner, it's all about pride, decay, and fallen grandeur. "History repeats itself," says Tali wearily, and Ci鮡ga offers precious little optimism about the future; even good mothers can suffer calamities. How did things come to be so bad? Unlike Monsoon, where everyone has a ready opinion about globalization, here everyone's too beaten down and defeated to analyze their shattered economy. An unapologetic throwback to old-school art-house cinema, the fatalistic Ci鮡ga is like the anti-Am鬩e.
Yet it's better and more truthful than Monsoon's sunny internationalism (a different form of denial). Good movies don't have to be serious, of course, and lightweight comedies have no obligation to edify. Yet as irresistible macroeconomic forces polarize the world between haves and have-nots, there's something wrong when only frothy imported fare like Italian for Beginners, Like Water for Chocolate, and Bread and Tulips can succeed at the U.S. box office. The only thing sad about La Ci鮡ga would be our inability to see it. On the other hand, nothing but movies like Monsoon Wedding? Now that's depressing.