DECEMBER 14, 2008
The Benefits of the Doubt
While two prestige Hollywood productions, Frost/Nixon and Doubt, argue about nothing much, kiddie-cartoon import Azur and Asmar asserts nothing less than how to close the divide between the West and the Arab world.
By Mark Jenkins
Also opening this week, a film I reviewed for NPR: WERE THE WORLD MINE.Clicking on that title will take you to www.npr.org.
"THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL," declared '70s feminists, a maxim that has since been widely accepted — but not in Hollywood. Even when making films whose contexts are undeniably ideological, American filmmakers attempt to reduce all issues to matters of character.
This is particularly obvious every December, when the studios reveal their latest Oscar bait, which pose such incisive questions as: "Was David Frost an airhead?" Reviewers have acclaimed Frost/Nixon — which as filmmaking is impressively above average, especially by the standards of director Ron Howard — because it supposedly keeps its two title characters in equilibrium. In other words, it imagines that being a globe-hopping playboy TV presenter is roughly as odious as subverting the Constitution.
This sort of "balance" is considered classy in Hollywood, and only the rare historical figure is exempted. (One well-established exception is Hitler. You can be sure that the upcoming Valkyrie does not consider the Fuhrer the moral equivalent of Tom Cruise.) As fictionalized by writer Peter Morgan, Nixon has much in common with Frost — as Tricky insists in a drunken late-night phone call that Morgan entirely invented.
If Frost/Nixon tames sharp drama with blunted politics, that still makes it more compelling than Doubt, a battle of wills that turns out to be about nothing at all. Both films were adapted from plays, but where Frost/Nixon unfolds the original, Doubt remains stagebound. It includes only a few speaking parts, and features such low-budget theatrical business as an office battle over light, both electric and natural. The symbolism is clear, but when Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) flip switches and adjust blinds, nothing is illuminated.
The movie is set in 1964, and Flynn represents the new liberal spirit, while Aloysius embodies the traditionalists's reaction. The two spar over Flynn's attempt to encourage Donald, the parish school's first black student. The never-quite-voiced accusation is Flynn has sexually abused the boy, or will if the nun doesn't intercede. She has no proof, so two supporting characters can plausibly also illustrate the title concept. A well-meaning young nun (Amy Adams) tends to believe whichever authority figure has most recently had her ear, while Donald's mother (Viola Davis) essentially argues that if the boy is being molested, worse things are happening to him — and will continue to happen if he doesn't receive the sort of education that will get him out of the neighborhood.
Streep gives her worst performance since, oh, Mamma Mia!, but it's not all her fault. The role is unplayable, and her final line — a final, weak riff on the title — is laughable. Writer-director John Patrick Shanley has said that he wants Doubt to inject skepticism into its viewers as they whipsaw between Aloysius's allegations and Flynn's reassurances. That's a fine dramatic strategy, but one that trivializes pederasty, one of the major controversies of the contemporary Catholic church. Ultimately, the movie suggests that the argument is more important than the outcome, a stance that's a working definition of sophistry.
A CONTRASTING STANCE is taken by Azur and Asmar, a beautifully rendered kiddie cartoon that boasts far more political daring than most Hollywood movies. A parable of cross-cultural understanding from worldly French animator Michel Ocelot, the maker of the folkloric Kirikou and the Sorceress, this faux-medieval saga ends with the moral of Bulworth, Warren Beatty's crazed ode to a mulatto future.
"Azur(e)" means blue, of course, and "asmar" is apparently the Arabic term for dark-skinned. The characters with those names are, respectively, a motherless French prince and the fatherless son of the noble's nanny, who nurses them both. The two grow up as brothers, and Asmar's mother, Jenane, call both boys her sons. Eventually, Azur's imperious father tires of the boys's relationship, sending his son away to study and banishing Jenane and Asmar.
Matured into the sort of blond, blue-eyed chevalier who must undertake a quest, Azur remains obsessed with the stories Jenane once told him, notably the one about an imprisoned djinn fairy. So he embarks on a voyage to the Arab world where — this is a fairy tale, after all — he soon re-encounters Jenane and Asmar. The latter is hostile at first, but brotherly bonds are quickly restored, and the young men set out to rescue that djinn fairy. It seems that all Jenane's fantastic bedtime stories are actually true, at least in the brightly hued world Ocelot and his collaborators have crafted with a mix of old (cutout) and new (digital) animation styles.
Azur and Asmar's elaborate images evoke Islamic mosques, Arab palaces, and Persian manuscripts, celebrating the region that has long fascinated Western explorers, while horrifying the guardians of Eurocentric culture. (Are the images sort of flat? Yeah, but so is traditional Arab and Iranian art.) Ocelot gives a sense of the area's exotic appeal, while emphasizing the East-West cultural gap, by presenting much of the subsidiary chatter in Arabic. Because Azur's command of the language is shaky — like the viewer's, most likely — the major characters must speak French. Which is to say, English, since the dialogue has been dubbed for U.S. release.
That's too bad, because the film seems fundamentally a lesson in tolerance for Ocelet's fellow countrymen. Yes, the U.S. is the country that is currently occupying an Arab nation, but Arab/West tension is higher in France, where riots have erupted in immigrant neighborhoods, and head scarves have been banned for Muslim schoolgirls. Striking back, the movie posits that blue eyes are considered bad luck in the Arab world, and introduces a Jewish scholar who notes that his people are better accepted in Arab lands than in Europe. (Well, it used to be true.)
Although the PG-rated film never shows anything more carnal than Jenane's nursing breast, it builds to a Jungle Fever moment — without Spike Lee's Sister Aloysius-like disapproval. When Azur and Asmar presents "the answer for a harmonious future," it's a simplistic but bracingly subversive plea for literally breeding out cultural disharmony.
FROST/NIXON — 2008, 122 min; at AMC Georgetown.
DOUBT — 2008, 104 min; at Landmark E Street and Bethesda Row.
AZUR & ASMAR — 2008, 99 min; at Landmark E Street.