Symphonies For the Bedeviled Rosetta ends with a pulsating life signal, just like Majid Majidi's recent New York Film Festival offering Color of Heaven. But unlike that Iranian film, the effect is not treacly. Everything the directing-writing team Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne do in this, their second dramatic feature, is brusque, clean, invigorating. Their rigorous style brings a sign of life to modern movie fiction. Throughout the 90s, such vivacity seemed possible only with the great Iranian directors?not Majidi (a mere sentimentalist who did the also-treacly Children of Heaven) but the great, dispassionate Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami. Tough-minded artists are rare in film culture; but rather than give in to commercial blandishment, the Dardenne brothers essay the unglamorous subject of joblessness. Together with Makhmalbaf's newest film The Silence, they herald a bracing, nonsentimental view of destitution. Conscienceless moviegoers beware: both Rosetta and The Silence are profoundly political and moral observations.
Almost as if rebuking the trite Color of Heaven, Makhmalbaf also presents a blind child protagonist, a 10-year-old blond-haired Tajik boy, Khorshid (Tahmineh Normativa). Though this may partly reflect the influence of Persian poet Forough Farrokhzad (whose unforgettable documentary The House Is Black exalted blind, leprous children to symbolize mankind), it proves the blindness metaphor can be done either crassly or courageously. In Makhmalbaf's real-life fable Khorshid is continually late to his job as an instrument-maker's apprentice, even though it's the only income for him and his mother. He is always distracted by beauty?vocal, musical, sensual?just as life also distracts Makhmalbaf from conventional styles of storytelling. This blind boy senses the world unfolding around him and is captivated by it; the rhythm of vehicles, wood-carvers, machinists thrill his ears. Similarly ecstatic, Makhmalbaf vivifies what Khorshid cannot see, then imaginatively converts those soundtrack rhythms into Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
If you think that's odd, consider: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was last ingeniously used as the bass note intro to X's state-of-the-nation song "I'm Lost." Also known as the Fate symphony, it was heard, memorably, in Martin Ritt's Conrack when the schoolteacher (Jon Voight) introduced it to impoverished island kids as the sound of a world beyond them, evoking the enormity of their life struggle. When those famous notes come back in different tones, on varied instruments in Makhmalbaf's The Silence, they still harbinger doom?the sound of the landlord knocking to collect rent or the boss controlling workers?yet they also sound triumphant. For Makhmalbaf it's the West's call of cultural liberation. In the self-reflexive terms of Iranian cinema, it alerts the power of imagination and strong-minded art.
The Dardennes want cinema to be as forceful. Like the best Iranians, these Belgian former-documentary-makers are devoted to blending verismo with fiction, seeking to change audiences' perceptions of life and fantasy. There is no bolder experiment. But for contemporary movie culture it's been controversial. One could guess how good Rosetta was when, after it won the Palm D'Or at Cannes, spoiled American tipsters came back complaining the award didn't go to feelgood movies by more established filmmakers. Almodovar's and David Lynch's Cannes entries are fine, but the Dardennes embarrass them with Rosetta's clarified emotions and bracing technique. Rosetta doesn't separate art from politics or emotion from morality; although void of mannerism, it doesn't deprive a viewer of affect. Rosetta shocks where The Straight Story and All About My Mother lull. (Journalists' commitment to the status quo is the real story behind the Cannes resentment.)
Instead of exploiting headline topicality like Hollywood issue-mongers, the Dardennes' view is more singular, in fact, Dostoevskian. Rosetta, like Raskolnikov, is an archetypal sufferer. Her intelligence is not from education but spirit and will. She lives in a trailer with her drunken slattern mother and trolls the Belgian countryside, fishing for food, cadging for too-elusive employment. Rosetta's plight is familiar?she's one of the Europeans made redundant in the new economy?but as depicted here she represents a brand-new modern character, the desperately furious survivor.
Rather than beg your sympathy, the Dardennes test it. Rosetta (played without affection by Emilie Dequenne) doesn't smile; usually mute or enraged, her other emotions only show in private. (One remarkable scene spies on her as ego and id converse: "My name is Rosetta. You've got a friend. I won't fall in the rut.") Not fully socialized into the world, she is constantly at war with it. Rosetta's impetus is a kind of preconscious rebellion, born of desire. She's not political, she simply wants to fit into the social order that has no place for her. (Dostoevsky's "He had plunged so far within himself, into so complete an isolation, that he feared..." comes to mind.) Stomping mad like Amy Madigan in her best role (Louis Malle's daring, neglected working-class expose Alamo Bay), Rosetta's common story disputes what bourgeois audiences are used to in movies; her crisis is global and can't be told often enough.
Sniffy rejection of Rosetta only reveals social indifference. Cannes journalists who jumped all over jury president David Cronenberg's decision prefer Cronenberg's unreal movies to the new rough, disillusioned view he awarded. Little else in current cinema reminds you how important it is to make a living, hold a job. Rosetta examines this truth (as Orwell did in Down and Out in Paris and London) against the escapist vogue of almost sickeningly sentimental tales like Color of Heaven and La Ciudad. Praise for those films is a flimsy cover for social contempt. David Riker's La Ciudad means well, but its only value is as quasi-documentary; it fails fiction's more complex standards. That piddling little movie doesn't depict a "new" or "changing" New York; all you have to do is look around you anywhere in this town to see a truth of immigrant, multicultural experience more varied and like your own workaday life than Riker's homiletic "foreign film" lets on. Riker suggests that only nonwhite, non-American-born people suffer anomie and exploitation. The Dardennes know better, and their piercing way with that hard truth places Rosetta among this year's movie miracles.
Like another great team of filmmaking siblings, Italy's Taviani brothers, the Dardennes know the value of their art and of social statement; their style affirms it. More than in their fine debut, La Promesse, they apply an expressive, if austere, technique?the handheld camera taken to heights recently confused by fake verite. The way the Dardennes follow Rosetta and her mother's virtually unspoken relationship is steady and revealing?technique Blair Witch can't compete with. It recalls Benoit Jacquot's skirt-chasing-cam in A Single Girl, but repudiates Jacquot's decadent misuse of cinema's latest inquiring tool.
Such single-minded style is fearless, charging into the depths of human behavior with rare, complex results. Dropping the inanities of romantic resolution, Rosetta is courted by a young waffle merchant (Fabrizio Rongione) who invites her into his isolation (he plays her tapes of his drum solo?symbolizing their unarticulated bond). Rosetta bites Rongione's outstretched hand?against reason, but with frightful revelation of her dilemma. Her refusal is tied to long-withheld friendship and heartfelt obligations too much to bear. What's left is her diminished self, an instinct to thrive, which the Dardennes know derives from/feeds into the horrific social impulse to compete, annihilate, exploit?motives tied to self-industriousness. (Issues mucked up and made erroneous in Fight Club.) Rosetta only wants a job, and that sense of selfhood becomes a trap. The Dardennes show that even the privilege of work does harm?it warps. Rosetta is nothing so banal as a good yarn; it's a slice of the crucial.
The Silence directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf Although A Moment of Innocence might be the greatest Iranian film (or at least the best ever to receive commercial distribution in the U.S.), The Silence demonstrates Makhmalbaf's high-flying artistry well enough. It resists the postcard quality of his lovely yet overpraised 1996 Gabbeh and that's because, like Rosetta, The Silence pursues intimate sociological awareness. Not the incomprehensible silence of David Riker's patronized Mexican immigrants (a cast of the barely articulate downtrodden), The Silence discloses little Khorshid's serenity?what might be termed The Dreamlife of Angels. Makhmalbaf's poor have individual distinction; the title The Silence also refers to his respect for their interior lives?the peace in their heads.
Makhmalbaf's sound-and-image details of the exterior world enliven Khorshid's imagination. He presents a child's fantasy as a means of celebrating what to insensate adults (or average filmmakers) would be dull realism. This heightens the impact of poverty and labor. Khorshid and the other children at work produce sounds that could be either their dread fate or a source of beauty. (Your choice is philosophical.) Khorshid, a bee collector, recites a song about bees landing on flowers or dung; he hears another about "the enchained man/the master of destiny/the wise man/the fool/both are me," learning life's complexity. In this way Makhmalbaf's insistent political perspective transforms social critique into beauteous analogies.
Ever the esthete, Makhmalbaf converts the Dardennes' sense of social realism into spiritual efflorescence. His vision is no less demanding, though it might be mistaken for gloss (as many understandably took his Persian-carpet fantasy Gabbeh for a travelogue). Yet The Silence maintains the schizo cultural paranoia of Makhmalbaf's earlier radical films. When Khorshid gropes toward one musical source, it's a soldier playing an oud while carrying a rifle next to a war memorial?cultural irony, political risk.
If Kiarostami is the Godard of the Iranian movement, Makhmalbaf is its Truffaut (and only a fool would argue either's superiority). That makes Makhmalbaf the more romantic and accessible and plangent. Finding the emotional consonance between Iranian and Tajik culture, The Silence is a sensual extravaganza; Ebrahim Ghafori lights each shot for memorization. Past the lines of fruit peddlers or the group of child musicians practicing the Fifth Symphony, Khorshid walks us through Muslim tradition. His girlfriend and fellow child-laborer Nadereh (Nadereh Abdelahyeva) is not blind, but when she uses two-stemmed cherries for earrings and pastes the petals of radish-red flowers on her fingernails, miming loveliness in her purple costume, the spectacle makes her imaginary world timeless. (Innocence gives her what Rosetta lacks.) Makhmalbaf uses faces and costumes to put folk culture into visual consideration, foremost in our consciousness. From the plink of rain playing an oud's strings, dissociated sounds of nature, the strained breathing to the tensed neck of a young cart-puller, music is everywhere, cohering everything.
The only American movie comparably tough-minded and insightful about restorative social customs developed out of dire political necessities is Charles Burnett's superb short When It Rains?a mini-symphony of political sympathies. Although The Silence is structurally inferior to it, Makhmalbaf's emotionally diffuse technique has similar emotive/revolutionary purposes. He attempts something as radical as Burnett and the Dardennes, which is to convey nonbourgeois experience through all the cinema's richest resources. The uniqueness of this concern demonstrates how insensitive and unimaginative and politically reticent movies typically are. You won't see a better film this year than A Moment of Innocence (which I reviewed back in June of 1997), but Rosetta, The Silence?and When It Rains?advance cinema's empathetic potential. Each movie spotlights society's most sympathetic figures (hard-luck strivers) and its certifiable villains (landlords and bosses). In Beethoven's spirit, these filmmakers shake their fists at the world, then raise their fists to life.
Clipped Knocking on Heaven's Door. Josef von Sternberg also used Beethoven's Fifth to underscore Raskolnikov's tragedy in his 1935 film version of Crime and Punishment (showing Nov. 23 as part of Film Forum's "Columbia 75" retrospective). A high/low classic, it combines Cliffs Notes brevity with populist sincerity. A portrait of Beethoven faces one of Napoleon, displaying Raskolnikov's psychological split. In Peter Lorre's unforgettable performance, intellectual pride verges on murderous mania. (It was the witty source of Rocky and Bullwinkle's Boris Badenov.) Lorre grounds Dostoevsky's story of crushed ambition in undeniable soulfulness. This gorgeous new print?preserving the luminosity of Sternberg's compositions?rewards your attendance.