Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Kibera slums in Nairobi, where over one million people live
is an important setting for The Constant
tho images of it show up in none of the film’s promotional material.


Fernando Meirelles uses a John Le Carré story, one part spy mystery, one part tragic romance, to tell a tale of Globalization: The Dark Side in The Constant Gardner. Viewers familiar with Meirelles’ majestic City of God may be disappointed to see that he has made what is largely a more sinister, contemporary version of The English Patient here – Ralph Fiennes has the franchise for tragic romances set in Africa – but this is an instance in which the plot is not particularly the story that Meirelles is telling. Rather, like City of God, he wants you to see just how it is people in the Third World live today – there are long aerial pans of the endless Kibera slums of Nairobi, a desert refugee camp in the Sudan, not a lion or elephant to be seen. The only hint of the old indigenous culture emanates from the sound track.¹

At one level, the film is standard Hollywood fare – anyone who has seen the Harrison Ford blockbuster The Fugitive knows almost instantly where this film is headed – but it really is as if Meirelles has made two movies, one for the studio that financed it, another for viewers’ back brains, images that won’t easily fade, even if the characters’ comments about them blend easily enough to a typical genre – the evil pharmaceutical conglomerate whose clinical trials are going badly, burying its mistakes more or less literally in a local lime pit, failing to note that its forthcoming wonder drug kills some people some of the time. It’s not so much that Meirelles wants you to see the corporation acting badly, with the aid of more than a few British foreign service officers, as it is that he wants you to see what a clinical trial of western medicine looks like in Kenya period. It’s a scene of poverty that might have looked more stark three weeks ago, before the anarchy at the New Orleans Convention Center ripped the veil off our own version of desperation & put it on the evening news, but ultimately it’s not all that different. “Disposable people,” as one of the characters puts it, look remarkably similar regardless of where they suffer.

The story turns a few of the usual narrative conventions upside down – the protagonist, British foreign service officer Fiennes is not Harrison Ford-like cool under fire or heroic. Indeed he’s filmed at several key points in postures intended to make him seem smaller than his six feet. Rachel Weisz, who plays his wife, on the other hand is filmed to seem taller – she’s actually five inches shorter – he’s often looking up at her, literally. She is the character who sets the plot in motion, a firebrand of an international aid worker who weds the phlegmatic diplomat at least partly so that he will take her to Africa. She’s perpetually asking the embarrassing rhetorical question of public officials, making her spouse’s colleagues cringe before whispering to her husband that he needs to do a better job keeping her under wraps. This, of course, she has no intention of doing.

The story is told in two arcs, starting with the discovery of her murder (the wheels of her overturned jeep is the very first image up on the screen) & her husband’s attempt to understand what happened – she hasn’t told him anything about the scandal concerning the tests of Dypraxa, a "cure" for tuberculosis, she was about to expose. Gradually he comes to understand what she was doing, to & with whom, and, as he does, the very same forces that got her begin to come after him. I’m not going to tell you more than that, except that the ending both is & is not familiar.

Unlike Andrew Davis, the director of The Fugitive, Meirelles obviously cares passionately about the corporate relationships that exist to bring a modern medicine to market. The manufacturer of the drug is not the subcontractor who tests it & the motives of the British government in aiding either of these corporations is as simple as 1500 jobs in a manufacturing plant in the north. Fiennes eventually is forced to understand how all the parties are motivated differently, ending up in a Sudanese refugee camp where Dypraxa’s original inventor is expiating his own sins by bringing aid to the victims of that nation’s civil war. It is a perfect Meirelles’ touch that Fiennes confrontation with Pete Postlethwaite in the camp is interrupted by bandits on horseback “recruiting” new members at gunpoint.

This film has gotten rave reviews in part because anyone who saw City of God understands what a great filmmaker Meirelles is, and in part because it comes at the end of cinema’s summer season, when the market is flooded with mindless fare for out-of-school teenagers. If it’s not quite the great film the reviewers would like it to be, it certainly is a fascinating, often wonderful project to watch. If I have problems with it, it’s partly because of the compromises Meirelles makes to get this tale to market – there is a sex scene early on (a flashback, actually) that is filmed in lighting fit for a perfume ad. Indeed, one of the largest distractions of The Constant Gardner is that it is visually so damn beautiful – whether it’s a scene of herons erupting from the surface of a lake at sunset or a long scan of the Kibera slums. This is a level of romanticism on the part of cinemaphotographer César Charlone that was never evident in City of God when he & Meirelles were dealing with their own continent. This film, however, was made for a different audience, or at least audiences beyond those that saw City. It will be interesting to see which ones show up.


¹ Again like the English Patient. When the CD comes out, it’s certain to be a success financially – world music as easy listening.