Under African Skies

From the outset of Jennifer Baichwal's Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles, it's clear that the director has succeeded in cultivating enough of a personal relationship with the Morocco-based recluse to worm out unexpected revelations from the famously reticent writer. A talking-head movie, yes—but what heads. Ned Rorem, the highly photogenic doyen of American composers, provides a keen assessment of Bowles's other creative body of work—his music. Before he began the career for which he's best known, Bowles had turned out a number of elegant chamber works and music for stage productions by Orson Welles and Tennessee Williams. There are precious scenes in which Baichwal captures Bowles's final meeting with William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.

If hardly a "life"—it's too fragmentary—this is a deeply engaging film portrait, full of memorable nuggets. Bowles is blistering on the subject of Gertrude Stein and her "house of humiliation"; his verdict on Bertolucci's adaptation of The Sheltering Skyis a curt "idiotic." And the 88-year-old writer speaks with less restraint than in earlier interviews about his life with Jane Bowles, who died in 1973. Although the couple cared for each other deeply, both were primarily homosexual and pursued a number of same-sex relationships during the course of their stormy marriage. One of the director's major coups is her footage of the notorious Amina Bakalia ("Cherifa"), the Moroccan peasant woman who was Jane's lover for 20 years, considered by nearly everyone in their entourage to have practiced black magic on Jane and Paul and to have poisoned her. Jane Bowles, for Truman Capote "that genius imp, that laughing, hilarious, tortured elf," unfortunately gets short shrift in the film. A marvelous writer and a profoundly original talent, she deserves a movie all her own.

Not too far from Morocco as the crow flies are the Cape Verde islands where Testamento, a picturesque Portuguese-Brazilian-French-Belgian coproduction, was filmed. The story, told in flashback, kicks off with the death of a wealthy merchant who leaves his entire estate to an illegitimate daughter. Having only thought of him as "that pervert who followed me around," she gets to know him after his death by listening to his taped memoirs and becomes obsessed with uncovering the details of her late papa's amorous adventures. Although it may sound like great fun, this slow-moving tale lacks punch. It marks the feature debut of Portuguese director Francisco Manso, whose background is in documentary—his eye-filling location shooting is Testamento's strong suit. The flick could easily be promoted as a travelogue celebrating Cape Verde's natural beauty.

 
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