Saturday, November 19, 2005

Nowhere in Africa * * *

The is a beautifully filmed movie about a jewish family that escapes Germany before WWII by emigrating to Kenya. It was the 2002 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. It's a very enjoyable film. I was quite engaged the whole time, but it has some dramatic flaws and gets a bit slow in the middle of its 142 minutes. I'm not going to review this film since the review I would write has already been written by someone else. Here: Epinions Review. So now I'm going to assume you've read that review and know what the movie is about. What follows are simply some personal reflections about the film. The first two are critiques, but don't get me wrong; it's a beautiful film and well-acted. I do recommend it.

I think I had a hard time engaging with this film because I found the lead couple uncompelling. To me, this was basically a character study of a marriage in distress, with a lovely background coming-of-age story for the daughter. I never became very sympathetic to Jettel, the wife. She seems a bit mentally unstable to be honest. Day 1 of her arrival, she's in a deep embrace with her husband. Later a neighbor shows up, and she only has eyes for this scruffy man she's never seen before (huh? Can we have some explanation for this weird behavior). She seems to mature towards the middle, but then embarks on a painful seduction of their German Jewish neighbor. Then suddenly she's doing R-rated scenes with her husband. Ok, this was 1938 and she is a German Jew. She had every excuse to be mentally unstable, but I wanted some indication of the reasons for her disjointed behavior. Was she always like this? The husband was also somewhat unsympathetic. He tends to make substantial family decisions involving significant family disruption without consulting her at all, and then tries to manipulate her into going along by employing the 'Don't give up on us!' ploy. Ick. By the end, they are back together, but it is not at all clear that their relationship has really grown closer and deeper.

And I have to say that I felt mildly uncomfortable with the main African character. The cook reminded me a little too uncomfortably of the 'happy negro servant character who is devoted to his employers blue-eyed darling child' that we used to see in films from the 1960s and 1970s, a character-type which has been so villified since the 1970s. This was so different from a recent film I saw, "Something the Lord Made" about the first forays into cardiac surgery in the 1950s and the sometimes uncomfortable friendship between the brilliant white surgeon and his equally brilliant black assistant.

I was particularly interested to see Nowhere in Africa since Mathias Habich is in it. He is a Polish TV/film actor who seems to do a bit of work in Germany. He was in Downfall as the German surgeon who you see mainly amputating a long series of soldiers' legs and arms. He has a much bigger role in Nowhere in Africa as he plays the couple's German-Jewish neighbor. I liked him a lot here.