Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Movie Review: The Constant Gardner
Directed by Fernando Meirelles. Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz

This movie was said to herald the return of "good movie" season for America. That being said, it's easier to begin to swallow the mammoth humanitarian burden this drags into the theatre with it. Apparently "good movie" means weighty topics, hard moral and ethical ambiguity, depressingly large-scale humanitarian struggles and of course, a good visceral murder.

In my mind, this film is ripped between two equally valid precepts: on one side, a humanitarian documentary on the economic and human tragedies of the poorest nations in Africa, and on the other, a decent thriller about a husband trying to track down the killers of his wife. Now granted, the two stories do entertwine and are inescapably related, however I felt that the thematic elements from one half of the movie kept imposing at the wrong times during a time when you were trying to enjoy something else. This should not come as a surprise from director Fernando Meirelles, whose last film City of God was actually a foreign release in America, so Mr. Meirelles' attentions are turned much more towards an international appeal that most American audiences would be used to.
The premise: Ralph Fiennes is a British diplomat working in Africa, and he is married in a whirl-wind romance to the spontaneous and socially pro-active Rachel Weisz, who rail-roads Ralph Fiennes' character into taking her with him. Once there, she begins a crusade to explose the unethical medical tests being done on the poverty stricken residents there as research for big British pharmaceutical companies. The film presupposes that these drug companies have only the interest of profit in mind and are willing to have a few unnamed Africans die to hide their drug's known defaults. So Rachel Weisz's character is hot on the trail of trying to find out why this is happening, while Ralph Fiennes spends a good part of the early film suspicious of certain marital infidelities. Rachel's character is killed, and suddenly Ralph is drug into the frey, torn between moving on with his life, or trying to figure out why his wife was murdered.

All of this intriguing plot is set against the stark images of Africa's bushland; vast expanses of arrid desert and huddled shanty villages where the small barefoot children run and play in the open sewers. (Basically all the key elements from Christian's Childrens Fund commercials.) The use of so much bleak cinematography left me feeling depressed and dissatisfied and slightly guilty for wanting to find out about this poor man's wife. In the face of so great a suffering, how could we be concerned with the problems of one man? And yet, if we try to help, the problem is indeed too great, and it overwhelms us.

Perhaps I have summed up the entire movie inadvertedly. The film definitely desires to impress upon us American audiences of the plight of countless human beings on a distant continent. Perhaps to petition for some sort of governmental response; aid sent to these impoverished nations. And yet I must ask: why are we so concerned with getting America's standard of living established on this continent? Could it perhaps be that America has got the wrong perspective in this whole thing? I felt guilty and shamed for seeing these people who have nothing, and yet their lives to go on. And yet, that's the point, isn't it? If you are guaranteed your health, food, and shelter, how much else do we need? I feel sad for these poor African children who are running and playing who seem quite happy, sadden by the thought that they won't climb into their cars and go home to their air conditioning at the end of the day. Who determined that America's leisurely lifestyle was such an enviable position to have. It may be the most comfortable in the world, yes, but is it really any more beneficial?

And yet perhaps I say this as defense for feeling a conviction for not helping other human beings in ways that the movie's characters do. Rachel Weisz's character is entirely selfless as she sacrificies her time, health and ultimately her own life to help people she doesn't even know.

Perhaps we'll never know the truth.

Despite this poor review, I'd rate this film three out of five


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