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Maria Full of Grace

From: blp
Category: Films
Date: 16 April 2005


All the way back to the station my friend kept saying it was perfectly good. I never disagreed. It was perfectly good and even contained it's own perfect internal critique. When one Columbian drug mule asked another what America was like, 'Demasiado perfetto', came the reply - too perfect.

This film about Columbian drug mules, made by a young American, not a Columbian, seems to me, like America, to have a lot of problems. No shame in that. We all have problems. Its perfection, like that of a neurotic cleanliness freak, lies in admitting to none of them. In this sense, it is like virtually all mainstream cinema and most of the art house cinema made today. What ever became of Eisenstein's old edict 'Make it strange'? It's been sectioned. Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson are doing it now - with rubber baseball bats and squirty flowers. The strangeness has been given an ASBO, preventing it from dangerous contact with reality. Generally, with the honourable exception of Lars Von Trier, if you want to find the inheritors of a really intelligent film tradition now, look to Iran.

Meanwhile, in Europe and America, over and over again we get this: oppressive, insipid, in-denial, often pious realism. Time Out and the Guardian always tell us it's good - quite rightly as it is perfectly good. And I regularly used to take up their recommendations, assuming they meant good like Cassavetes, Godard, Warhol, Fassbinder, Bresson, Dreyer, Lang finally getting wise when I realised they meant good like a well made chair. Well, it's a long time since I've been tripped up. I apologized to my friend, but it's difficult to go back into Plato's cave and experience the world through shadows again when you've so frequently and devastatingly been shown the light. 'But that wasn't what this film was trying to do', protested my friend. Really? Why not? Who wouldn't want to show the light if you know it's possible? How can you be a supposedly serious filmmaker now and not take on the lessons of those people? Is it all just a matter of individual preference?

That's what my friend thought: 'The film wasn't trying to be arty or any kind of masterpiece. It was just trying to tell it's story simply and it was perfectly good for what it was. And it was about something important.' Perfectly good for what it was - in that case we have nothing to talk about. And yet it was about something important - and when was something important ever just a simple story and when was there ever nothing to say about something important? My friend's view, while quite understandable, does a terrible disservice to the so-called 'arty' filmmakers, as if all their testing of limits was just a matter of novelty, of fulfilling a different kind of desire, rather than a series of attempts to engage with the knottiest problems of represenatation. And those problems are there, whether you decide to engage with them or not. To take a small but key example here, the scene where our heroine has to swallow her portion of little rubber wrapped parcels of cocaine is a fudge. Yes, some of the difficulty of the act is conveyed, but the difficulty of representing it is shrugged off like a liar saying something intelligible and then changing the subject. The filmmaker makes it too easy for himself and too easy for us with a few quick, curt cuts. Of course to make the actress swallow all sixty two pellets would have been asking a lot and, in my view, would have been exploitative. But, as it is, he gives us very little sense of the labour involved and therefore of the exploitation he is trying to represent, thereby missing the chance for a moment of real cinematic intensity. There's a specifically cinematic, conflictual problem here then. Ignoring it does not solve it. We remain aware that we are watching a film and aware that we are being lied to about it precisely that glaringly obvious fact. As it happened, the film broke during this screening and we were left staring at a blank white screen for about a minute. Now that was interesting.

There are other problems going on behind the scenes. The filmmaker is a young New Yorker. The star is a young Columbian girl with no training as an actress. I couldn't say exactly what all the problems here are, precisely, but there are some. Why doesn't our young American director have anything to say about the effects of US foreign policy on the cocaine problem in Columbia? Why does his Columbia seem like such a peaceably bucolic place compared to the chaotic nightmare depicted in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's non fiction book 'News of a Kidnapping' - especially given that difficulties in Columbia forced him to film in, I believe, Venezuela instead? And given a situation as bad as that book shows, how do we swallow the rather trite series of events - sacked from dull job for insubordination to rude boss - that leads our well manicured heroine into her own criminal act of swallowing? How do I know the film is wrong? I don't for certain. But even life in London is not this anodyne.

So representational problems abound. And re that particular relationship between director and actress, I though longingly of Godard's 'One Plus One' where a black power revolutionary in a wrecker's yard, where Godard's camera has been panning around relentlessly, incessantly drawing attention to it's invisible presence, turns suddenly and ever so briefly to meet that camera's gaze and refers to 'enemies who pretend to be your friend.' It's not a statement of the absolute truth. But it's a question that needs to be asked. Oh God(ard) for a few, just a few of the necessary questions to be asked here!

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