Lights, camera, agitation: Two current portraits of left-wing heroism and victimhood-the scrappy Belgian import Rosetta and Hollywood's high-powered The Insider-are exposés that make their points by churning up maximum tumult.
Rosetta's stylized rough-and-tumble vérité is established from the onset, as its teenage protagonist slams through a factory, fighting ineffectually and violently to keep the job from which, for reasons never specified, she's just been fired. The handheld camera is kept disorientingly close to Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) and will remain so for nearly every minute of this pummeling, jagged, and extremely well-edited film. This is the second feature by the brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, after their terrific illegal-immigrant drama La Promesse; like that 1997 release, it puts 20 years of social- documentary experience in the service of a powerfully single-minded metaphor.
Living in a trailer park with an alcoholic mother who mends old clothes for her to peddle, Rosetta is a furiously sullen bundle of energy. She's not quite pretty but too fresh-faced to be dowdy, often expressionless but also impulsive ("You only drink and fuck," she screams at her mother as the prelude to one of several scuffles). Most significantly, Rosetta lives in a state of existential dread. The woodland swamp that borders the trailer camp exemplifies the "rut" into which she fears she might fall. In her quest to forestall this fate by finding work, she is befriended by a young guy who operates a waffle stand. He treats her to a dinner of beer and fried bread, plays a tape of him practicing the drums, and tries to teach her to dance-at which point Rosetta doubles over in the stress-related stomach pain that plagues her throughout this fiercely compelling movie.
Devoid of music, elliptical in its narrative, Rosetta has not been universally admired. That it stormed out of nowhere to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes, while David Lynch's heartwarming Straight Story was overlooked, seems to have struck some Americans as a conspiracy orchestrated by the Evil Empire from beyond the grave. Others directed their animus against the Dardennes' unglamorous heroine. Unlike the protagonists of The City, a more sentimental excursion through lower-class misery, Rosetta is neither likable nor ennobled by struggle. She is, rather, some form of brute life force. Cunning as an animal, she scrambles, hides, and hoards. The movie makes a spectacle of her repeated dodging and ducking across the highway into the woods. Laid off by a baker (Olivier Gourmet, the father in La Promesse), she goes into a rage-clinging to a heavy sack of flour as though it were her life raft. Most appallingly, she betrays the only character who has shown her sympathy.
Rosetta was shot in the same drab neighborhoods as La Promesse, but one could easily imagine the movie transposed to the U.S.- although I wonder if a career-conscious American indie would care to present so needy and (relatively) unattractive a protagonist, or plot a trajectory of such sustained anxiety. Is Rosetta an abstract construct? The Dardennes have signaled their modernist ambitions by comparing her to the hero of Kafka's Castle. But their movie's ugly-duckling heroine, her repeated routines and spiritual anguish, as well as the harsh clarity of the ending, suggest a Marxist remake of Bresson's Mouchette.
Rosetta strives for a material state of grace. Her will to survive is identical to her overwhelming desire to find a "real" job in this world. During the brief period when she operates a waffle stand-the camera, as usual, fixed on her every moment-she becomes almost human. It's a small miracle; work is a pleasure.
**More posh, but scarcely less hectic, Michael Mann's The Insider begins by juxtaposing a dicey 60 Minutes interview in revolutionary Iran with a child's asthma attack in suburban Louisville and thereafter races from one high-stakes crisis to the next.
Based on the true story of Jeffrey Wigand, the research scientist who blew the whistle on Brown & Williamson Tobacco and laid the groundwork for the lawsuits that have done so much for our current budget surplus, The Insider is a tale of brave truth-tellers and corporate mendacity. Confusing self-importance with importance, the never laconic Mann inflates his potentially nifty thriller with superfluous scenes extra-padded by wasted motion. Mann rarely misses a chance to savor the brooding dusk from a skyscraper window, while in an ongoing search for the audiovisual equivalent of purple prose, underscores the high drama with a bizarre mélange of Gregorian chants and world-music yodeling.
At 155 minutes, The Insider may be pumped-up, but it's rarely boring. Mann keeps the pot aboil by stoking the viewer's sense of a ruthless corporate culture that will stop at nothing to protect itself. Not only is Wigand subject to gross intimidation, but after he brings his story to 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, CBS lawyers begin pressuring 60 Minutes to cut back on Wigand's on-air interview with Mike Wallace-presumably so as not to jeopardize the network's possible sale to Westinghouse.
The Insider is also entertaining thanks to Mann's showboat cast. Russell Crowe plays the volatile, heroic Wigand with Al Pacino as the equally volatile and no less heroic Bergman-identified as a onetime student of Herbert Marcuse. Their wives (Diane Venora and Lindsay Crouse) have somewhat less to do, but in any case, the movie is stolen by Christopher Plummer's hilarious Mike Wallace impersonation. The real Wallace's well-documented unhappiness may have less to do with the suggestion that he sold out Wigand and Bergman than the glib ease with which he's shown doing it. When the vindicated Bergman gets to tell Wallace off("What got broken here doesn't grow back together again"), Plummer plays the CBS star as baffled-but only momentarily. His Wallace is the most naturalistic character in the film.
The news business is the object of some satire, although given The Insider's own throat-clearing self-aggrandizement, the darts can rebound. "Excuse me gentlemen, Mr. Rather is complaining about his chair again," a CBS producer remarks-something that has surely never happened on one of Mann's sets. When Wallace tells Bergman that he doesn't intend to end his days "wandering in the wilderness of NPR," he couldn't possibly be speaking for the director.
**On the subject of posturing, it will be a remarkable year for cine-histrionics if anything tops Klaus Kinski's posthumous turn in Werner Herzog's My Best Fiend-a first-person doc assembled largely from footage taken in the course of the five features they made, being madmen together. Herzog introduces his alter ego on stage, in the lunatic midst of his ranting "Jesus tour," and reveals that, back in the '50s, Kinski briefly occupied the same Munich pension where 13-year-old Herzog lived with his mother and brothers. As anyone who has suffered through julien donkey-boy knows, Herzog is no mean performer-his account of the day Kinski trashed the house, locked himself in the toilet, and raved for 48 hours is not the last of My Best Fiend's fantastic tales.
The first and greatest Herzog-Kinski collaboration, Aguirre, Wrath of God-shot under extreme conditions in the Amazon rain forest-provided momentum for the less- hallucinated features that followed, including its near-remake Fitzcarraldo (where the star's tantrums so rattled the Indian extras that, according to Herzog, they offered to kill Kinski for him). Coaxing a last vehicle from the late actor's outtakes, Herzog-who is only now beginning his first fiction film since working with Kinski on Cobra Verde in 1987-offers some evidence of Kinski's "great human warmth," somewhat more of his "rage of unimaginable proportions," and a good demonstration of Kinski's uncanny capacity to corkscrew his way into the frame. There is also a priceless scene of the frighteningly tanned and blond actor in diva mode, graciously swanning through the Telluride Film Festival to greet its insider-director, "Oh, so you're Tom Luddy."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.