Beyond the Multiplex

Ingmar Bergman's last film? Plus: A look at the demented morality of the American South and "Murderball," a documentary about a randy band of disabled rugby players.


Andrew O'Hehir
July 8, 2005 12:00AM (UTC)

From the late 1950s through the early '70s, you could speak of Ingmar Bergman, utterly without irony, as the most important filmmaker in the world, and maybe the most important artist, period. But the movie universe, along with the universe in general, has shifted on its axis since then. The art-house audience that made "Smiles of a Summer Night" and "The Seventh Seal" and "Persona" famous around the world was essentially an extension of the high-culture market of symphony halls, art museums and modernist drama, and has withered away.

The new art-house audience has been nurtured on a pop-culture smorgasbord of music videos, '70s and '80s sitcoms, horror movies and mock-serious cartoons. It belongs to either the big, sweeping gesture or the arched eyebrow (or to both at once) -- to Scorsese and Tarantino, to Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers. Bergman's demanding and often painful dramas -- stemming, as they do, from Strindberg, Sartre and the A-bomb, from the 20th century's existential and spiritual crisis -- are now dreaded as much as respected.

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Bergman has made a new film, probably his last, and fanatics like me will be dragging our reluctant friends to see it over the next few months. I hope at least some of the newcomers will be surprised; "Saraband" is a knockout, a lean and energetic family drama, without a second wasted. In the great Bergman tradition, it's beautiful but unfussy. He's been working in high-definition digital video (DV) for several years, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that he has mastered the aesthetic possibilities of that medium more than many filmmakers one-third his age. To read my original review of "Saraband" after it premiered last October at the New York Film Festival click here. It opens July 8 in New York and Los Angeles, with a wider release to follow.

Frankly, it's tough for the proprietor of this column to focus on much else with a new Bergman film on the dance card, but as they say in the marketing world, the consumer demands alternatives. We've hit a minor lull in the indie release calendar around the July 4 barbecue season, but I can also recommend a tough and smart South American thriller -- which might be grimmer than anything Bergman's ever made -- a crowd-pleasing documentary about the world of quadriplegic rugby, and a lackadaisical musical tour through the American South.

"Crónicas": Good, bad and ugly (minus the good) in the Ecuadorian jungle
Sebastián Cordero's hit Latin American thriller "Crónicas" begins with a horrendous scene in which a lynch mob in a small Ecuadorian town nearly burns a man to death. It ends with a horrible crime that we only suspect is being committed; we don't actually see it, and with a little work we can allow ourselves to believe it's not happening at all. If that second probable crime is worse than the first certain one, it's a measure of the sweaty, claustrophobic power of "Crónicas," a collision between a slimeball TV reporter and a nefarious serial killer that dares us to decide whose evil runs deeper.

"Crónicas" isn't the kind of sweeping breakthrough picture represented by "Amores Perros" or "Y Tu Mamá También" (whose director, Alfonso Cuarón, helped produce this film), but it provides still more evidence that Latin American cinema has reached a new period of maturity. This tightly focused genre film displays its Hollywood influences proudly but boasts a creepy sensuality, along with a morbid cynicism, that feels distinctively Latin.

Just a few years ago, John Leguizamo was a New York performance artist on the fringe of the theatrical world who looked like he might develop a sideline as a movie character actor, à la Willem Dafoe. Now he's on the verge of becoming a major film actor, one who happens to have an extensive record onstage. Leguizamo brings all the qualities that lend him a peculiar edge -- his overly varnished good looks, his salesman's suavity, his hyperactive New York arrogance -- to this role as Manolo Bonilla, an arrogant cowboy reporter for a Miami-based Latino TV network.

"Crónicas" marks the first time Leguizamo has performed a principal role in Spanish (Manolo likes to ask and answer questions in English sometimes, mostly to impress the people around him with his cultural versatility) but there's no hint of self-congratulation or bogus cultural affirmation about it. Manolo sweeps into the remote jungle town of Babahoyo, where a serial rapist and killer has been preying on the area's children, intent as always on getting the story at any cost. When he stops a mob of enraged townspeople from killing a local husband and father named Vinicio Cepeda (played by the fine Mexican actor Damián Alcázar), who has just run over a kid with his pickup truck, Manolo sends a story back to Miami casting himself, as always, as a kind of populist hero amid Latin America's cruelty and corruption.

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Writer-director Cordero parcels out his information with deadly precision; we already have an inkling that the kindly looking Vinicio is a little more interested in the Monster of Babahoyo than seems strictly healthy. Despite just having depicted Vinicio to the entire Spanish-speaking hemisphere as a blameless victim, Manolo begins to sniff out the deeper, uglier story -- but, slick as he is, he isn't about to share his intuition with the hapless local cops, and never imagines that some small-town perv might be capable of outsmarting him. What ensues is a classic cat-and-mouse game full of switchbacks and surprises; Leguizamo's interviews with Alcázar in the decrepit prison where Vinicio is being held will have you digging your fingernails into your armrests.

Maybe "Crónicas" is meant to be a parable about the evil power of the media, but I think that like most effective thrillers it's really about fundamental human weakness -- in this case, the desire to believe in your own goodness even when you definitely shouldn't. Cordero has a terrific cast (including Leonor Watling and José Maria Yazpik as the other members of Manolo's TV crew) and captures his grimy tropical location with an almost desperate urgency. Despite all that South American sunshine, this lean and brilliantly constructed thriller is a dark realm of secrets and lies, illuminated by TV lighting and the glitter of John Leguizamo's eyes. Those in search of life-affirming family entertainment might want to stick with Ingmar Bergman.

"Crónicas" opens July 8 in New York and Los Angeles, with a national rollout to begin July 22.

"Murderball": Boys will be boys, even with broken necks
You could argue that "Murderball," a new documentary from first-timers Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry-Alex Rubin that wowed the crowds at Sundance, is exactly the kind of nonfiction film I complain about incessantly in this space. It's closer in many ways to human-interest journalism than to traditional documentary cinema, and in fact it emerged from a feature story about the United States quadriplegic-rugby team that Shapiro wrote for Maxim. Its basic point -- that aggro-jock dudes who have suffered disabling injury or illness remain aggro-jock dudes, and possibly more so than ever -- could just as well have been made in a segment of "60 Minutes" or "Now."

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For all that, "Murderball" has a lot of integrity, both in visual and conceptual terms, and seamlessly blends entertainment and education. Hearing the quadriplegic male athletes in this film talk openly and humorously about their sex lives -- yes, the machinery still works and, yes, the logistics can be pretty complicated -- is a strangely liberating experience, and Rubin and Shapiro get full marks for blowing the doors off that particular taboo. Beyond that, "Murderball" is a "Rocky"-esque sports saga with a rowdy, irascible cast of characters who demonstrate conclusively that being in a wheelchair does nothing to dampen the spirit of balls-out macho competition.

Quad rugby (formerly called "murderball") is a sport played on a standard wooden basketball court, in which teams of men in specially armored Road Warrior-style wheelchairs bash the bejesus out of each other while trying to carry the ball the length of the court, in the mode of football or rugby. They often knock each other sprawling; no helmets and minimal protective gear are worn. (As one player says: "What's going to happen? I'm going to break my neck?") As the film helpfully explains, a quadriplegic is not necessarily paralyzed in all four limbs, just impaired in all of them to some degree. Some players are pretty adept with their arms and carry the ball; others have limited use of arms or hands and serve as blockers or defensive players.

Rubin and Shapiro follow the U.S. team, led by a tattooed, goateed former soccer star named Mark Zupan, as it seeks revenge for a bitter loss to Canada, whose hardass coach is Joe Soares, a onetime American star now bearing a grudge of his own. The personal and athletic dramas surrounding the team are sufficiently absorbing that you relate to Soares, Zupan and the film's other characters principally as charismatic, driven and often pigheaded guys locked in ruthless competition. This is a hopelessly hackneyed thing to say, but you pretty much forget they're in wheelchairs. It's a triumph, as they say, of the human spirit, in its gnarliest and most dude-alicious form.

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"Murderball" could have traveled one level deeper and asked more painful questions, though it might not have been such a crowd-pleaser. We briefly meet Keith Cavill, a recently injured motorcycle racer whom Zupan befriends, and watch him begin to adjust to the realities of a long and difficult rehabilitation and a transformed physical existence. While the rugby players have adjusted successfully -- and, if anything, adopted a hyper-masculine identity to compensate for their altered physical status -- Keith's psychic wounds are still naked. He looks around his spiffy new full-access apartment and pronounces, "This really sucks." All the guys in "Murderball" have presumably been through that emotion and come out the other side, but the film mainly shows us their destination, not their journey.

"Murderball" opens July 8 in New York and Los Angeles, with a national rollout to begin July 22.

"Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus": Goin' noplace special, between Saturday night and Sunday morning
Drifting along the back roads of the South with no particular destination in mind, Andrew Douglas' "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus" is a lovely, faintly sinister travelogue, accompanied by performances from such alt-country luminaries as Jim White, Johnny Dowd and the Handsome Family. White, in fact (whose album "The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus" lends the film its title), is our host for this journey, driving from Louisiana prison towns to North Florida juke joints to West Virginia holiness churches in a borrowed 1970 Chevelle.

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Douglas is a British photographer and commercial director who made this film for the BBC, and its roots sometimes show. No Southerner -- and no non-Southerner who's ever ventured beyond Northern Virginia or the Atlanta suburbs -- will be surprised by any of the cultural observations on offer. You say fundamentalist Christianity is deeply rooted in the South? Its culture is divided between hellfire and salvation, between Saturday night at the cut-and-shoot bar and Sunday morning at the revival meeting? Well, I'll be damned! Is that why it's such a screwy place?

But hey, the musical interludes are terrific, and Douglas manages to shoot in all kinds of nowheresville barrooms, barbershops, churches and diners where you'd imagine that a passel of Limeys with cameras might provoke something of a reaction. His color palette is appropriately muted, and the film's curious mix of image and anecdote eventually gathers its own kind of momentum. If White isn't the most charismatic narrator I've ever seen, his odd tone of diffident, ambiguous respect for the enduring separateness of rural Southern existence seems like the right note to strike. And now that the South's demented morality has become, by default, the nation's, this couldn't be timelier.

"Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus" opens July 13 in New York; July 29 in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville and San Francisco; and Aug. 5 in Albuquerque, N.M., Buckhannon, W.Va., Orlando, San Luis Obispo, Calif., and Seattle, with other cities to follow.

Corrections: In my June 23 column, I incorrectly stated that "Elevator to the Gallows" would open that week in Boston. My apologies to Beantown readers; the correct opening date is July 22. A couple of columns earlier, I incorrectly stated that Werner Herzog's "The White Diamond" would soon be available on DVD. Herzog distributes his films himself through his Web site, and for reasons best known to himself makes most of them available only on VHS-PAL videotape, so you can't play them on a standard North American VCR. Go figure.

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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