Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Interpreter: Watch out for A.O. Scott, and Race Issues

We thoroughly enjoyed The Interpreter as an agreeable Hollywood timepass. It's really nicely shot, and has some brilliant "suspense" scenes (especially the scene on the bus, which I found totally shocking).

This morning I thought I would read what some other people thought of the film, and I was dismayed to see, first of all, A.O. Scott being unremittingly snide:

This kind of movie, stuffed with intimations of faraway strife and people in suits talking frantically on cellphones and walkie-talkies, is conventionally described as a political thriller, but "The Interpreter" is as apolitical as it is unthrilling. A handsome-looking blue-chip production with a singularly impressive Oscar pedigree, it disdains anything so crude, or so risky to its commercial prospects, as a point of view.

It's always a little depressing when negative reviews of a film you enjoyed (admittedly a little thoughtlessly) lessen your opinion of the film. But A.O. Scott manages to do just that. Damn.

There are of course quite a number of positive reviews of the film, mostly focusing on Darius Khondji's magnificent cintematography (the New York Daily News: "The city has rarely looked more lovely on film"), and the nice acting by both Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn (Splicedwire: "Kidman and Penn vividly yet gracefully charge their characters with resonant emotional distress.")

And there are many more. But none of the positive reviews manage to take the sting of a single harsh review in The Times. Why do I fetishize the NYT so much?

* * * * *
Secondly, it's interesting that few critics have talked about the unusual race issues in the film. Roger Ebert does have a throw-away "P.S." at the end of his review which is more interesting than the body of the review itself:

I don't want to get Politically Correct, I know there are many white Africans, and I admire Kidman's performance. But I couldn't help wondering why her character had to be white. I imagined someone like Angela Bassett in the role, and wondered how that would have played. If you see the movie, run that through your mind.

Yes, this is something to ponder. A.O. Scott made fun of the way the Nicole Kidman (of all people) is The Interpreter's "embodiment of suffering Africa." I think Scott's tone, there at least, is probably on-target: the film's attitude to race leads one to slight sarcasm, not full-blown outrage. In that it points to the failure of postcolonial African ideals, I think the issue in this film is politics, not so much race. And I'm bored of the kind of response to art which looks for a racist unconscious everywhere. To see The Interpreter as racist for demonizing "Zuwanie" is to overlook the basic historical fact that the violence that has occurred in sub-saharan Africa in the past decade has been committed by black Africans, against other black Africans.

The Interpreter would have been a more serious film if it had addressed the causes of that violence: endemic poverty, the absence of any checks on the power of the dictators, way too many guns, and the world's indifference. One could also ask for a more historically nuanced representation of both Nicole Kidman's character's "white African farmer" background; white African farmers in places like Zimbabwe can hardly be said to be innocent victims.

All of this might make the film more serious, yes, but the sad truth is that any whiff of historical specificity would have surely turned this glamorous (but conscientious) Sean Penn-Nicole Kidman political thriller (with potential-Oscar buzz!) into a "sincere" and "important" film that no one wants to see (the Hotel Rwanda trap).


arnab said...

will wait for it to come to dvd.

re. the "hotel rwanada" reference, i'm not sure that i would think of that as a film that nails the question of messy history/politics. some discussion of it here

8:31 PM  
Anonymous said...

Right on, A.

Outrage is all the rage now. Racists allegedly under every stone. Such a tiring view of rather more complex matters.


8:49 PM  
Lucy Tartan said...

But, still, is it just some sort of whacked-out coincidence that Nicloe Kidman - the whitest woman in Hollywood - is used?

8:23 AM  
Amardeep said...


No, it's not coincidence -- Hollywood is pretty much full of crap on the question of race. They know perfectly well that with Angela Bassett they have a $20 million film, while with Nicole Kidman they have a $100 million film.

But I guess what I'm saying is, given what the film is actually about, and given the filmmaker's attempts to balance out certain things (in Kidman's personal history, which is only gradually revealed), it didn't make me want to run out of the theater in protest.

The absurdity did want to make me throw popcorn at the screen, however.

9:48 AM  
Rob Breymaier said...

I haven't seen the film but I would probably come out of it petty ticked off if it has something to do with a white woman taking on the burden of saving Africa.

9:30 AM  
Manish said...

Brey, you're going to be pretty ticked off then. It takes real chutzpah to do what The Interpreter did in casting Kidman. It's like doing a film on Partition in India and focusing on a peripheral white guy instead of Gandhi, Jinnah or the butchered migrants.

3:35 PM  
Tom said...

Thank you, very interesting!

10:15 AM  

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