Dutiful as it is, Jonathan Demme’s Beloved doesn’t succeed so much as it abides. Nearly three hours in length, this largely faithful adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner moves in leisurely fits and—unencumbered by style or narrative complexity—never loses its forward momentum.
Morrison’s novel was inspired by the true tale of a runaway slave who chose to murder her infant rather than allow the baby’s capture. For the writer, that gesture was a means to evoke an experience so extreme it confounded expression—circling around the life of the escaped Sethe (and hence the condition of slavery), Morrison created a terrifying vortex. Eight years after the end of the Civil War, Sethe is living in a haunted house (like everyone else in America) with her surviving daughter, Denver, when her ghosts take the form of the mysterious young woman who gives the book its title. Named for the heart’s desire, Beloved is everything to everybody: daughter, sister, lover, the return of the repressed, slavery in a new and awful form.
Deprived of Morrison’s dense style and oblique narrative, Beloved‘s plot is as luridly melodramatic as anything by Faulkner or Hawthorne were they so baldly synopsized. In his infamous critique of the novel as an exercise in martyrology, Stanley Crouch imagined the trailer for the inevitable TV adaptation: “Meet Sethe, an ex-slave woman who harbors a deep and terrible secret…” Demme’s movie is scarcely so crass but, as Morrison’s Beloved was a sort of gothic, so his overwrought adaptation is, in part, a horror film.
Demme’s dilemma isn’t so much straightening out Morrison’s artfully convoluted storyline as making her essentially literary fiction something literal. The supernatural must be established. When, after years of wandering, the ex-slave Paul D (Danny Glover) finds Sethe (coproducer Oprah Winfrey) living on the outskirts of Cincinnati, her house welcomes him with mad creaks, a red Kryptonite glow, and visions out of The Shining as a prelude to the full-scale table-throwing attack which Morrison describes in a single offhand paragraph. Similarly, the inexplicable Beloved (Thandie Newton) drags herself out of the swamp, covered with bugs and croaking like the possessed child in The Exorcist.
The implicit meaning of every scene is here made explicit—not just the shock centerpiece but also runaway Sethe’s dreamlike meeting with the half-crazed white indentured servant who helps her give birth. (Paradoxically, these scenes make the film stranger by confounding its narrative fluidity. Beloved doesn’t feel like other Hollywood movies—least of all the inept Color Purple, which its casting unavoidably references.) Beloved is best when Demme embeds the drama in a raw sense of place—the seasons changing around Sethe’s cold frame house, the revivalist meetings her mother, Baby Suggs, leads out back. As the sensory assault of Cincinnati’s hog pens is stronger than a poltergeist attack, so the ribbon-festooned party Sethe throws for Beloved and Denver is the most hallucinated sequence.
Hyperaware of his responsibilities, Demme admits no distance from the material. (In a fascinating slip, the director told Time that his fidelity to the book was “slavish.”) It is fruitless to imagine what Charles Burnett might have brought to the table—having not only guided Glover’s strongest performance in the subtly magic-realist To Sleep With Anger, but also delivered an extremely credible picture about slavery in ‘nightjohn. Another useful corollary would be Jim Jarmusch’s laconic (and doggedly uncommercial) western, Dead Man, but that would have involved recasting the material—in both sense of the word.
Slackjawed and wide-eyed, Thandie Newton throws herself into the title role—executing a sepulchral buck and wing with a variety of rag-doll moves—but the most uncanny presence in the movie is, of course, Winfrey’s. A project she struggled to make for a decade, Beloved is the celebration of her you-go-girl tenacity. The subject is a family crisis—and who knows more about that than her? Ditto the healing message (reiterated in repeated shots of two slavery-scarred survivors making love). Glover helps ground the action, as does Kimberly Elise’s grave and self-contained Denver, but the spectacle of a de-(or rather, differently) glamorized Winfrey living out her roots is a psychodrama stronger than acting.
Beloved is less Oprah’s vehicle than her time machine. Even more than Morrison, Winfrey—who sees herself as a medium for the spirits of specific Negro slaves—has assumed the role of a tribune. Beloved‘s oscillating tone and close-up–driven absence of perspective become more coherent once the movie is understood as an epic version of Oprah—a show in which the star naturally shifts between autobiographical confession and maternal advice, reliving personal adversity and offering the model of her own empowerment as New Age therapy.
In the logic of Beloved, Winfrey is not just Sethe but Baby Suggs and the eventually actualized Denver as well. (Her audience is represented by the redoubtable church ladies who mobilize to exorcise the past.) Marilyn Monroe returned from the grave invested with Meryl Streep’s chops and Barbra Streisand’s will in a movie bigger than Titanic wouldn’t stand a chance of wresting away Oprah’s Oscar. It’s the performance of her life. She has made herself her own best guest.
Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine’s Destiny—shown in the 1997 NYFF—is a big, lush, boldly kitsch piece of political pop. The script is scarcely more elevated than a comic book, but its intellectual pedigree rivals Beloved‘s, concerning as it does the 12th-century Arab Andalusian philosopher Averröes.
Shot largely in Syria and Lebanon, Destiny suggests a form of Oriental orientalism. The scenes are lit like the portico of a Miami Beach hotel and it will sprain no brain to imagine Maria Montez as a player in this swashbuckling tale of rival princelings, gypsy dancers, religious assassins, and court conspiracies. There is, however, another agenda. Beginning with an auto-da-fé in which French clerics burn a fellow Christian for the heresy of translating Averröes, Destiny evokes a multicultural Europe and defends a particular mode of secular humanism—an exuberant alliance of intellectuals, entertainers, and free spirits devoted to tolerance and sexual equality. (The political is certainly personal: the 72-year-old Chahine grew up a Maronite in cosmopolitan Alexandria and studied film at UCLA.)
Although Destiny is filled with spirited production numbers and even the zealots perform a mass prayer dance on the battlements, the movie’s most ecstatic scene has Averröes’s Christian disciple return north to his chilly homeland, piloting a skiff filled with books. As a philosopher, Averröes did ultimately have a greater impact on Christian than Islamic thought. (Dante generously includes him along with Abraham and Socrates among the virtuous heathens in hell’s first circle.) But that is not Chahine’s point either.
Destiny ends as it begins, with a huge bonfire. The difference is that the barbaric Europeans burn people while the more civilized Arabs only incinerate ideas. Even more than Beloved, Destiny is a movie that directly addresses its audience. Would the fatwa the fundamentalists declare against Averröes and his friends apply to this film as well? As the distraught philosopher watches his life’s work thrown on the pyre, a friend whispers consolation: “I know your books are safe in Egypt.” Let’s hope so.