Times of Tumult


Somewhere in the forests of southern India, a prisoner is being tortured by the revolutionary cell he betrayed. Tied to a tree in the pouring rain, his head is forced back into the camera; it’s a disconcertingly fabulous arabesque. Finally, one of the masked figures shoots him point-blank. The mask is removed to introduce the fresh-faced 19-year-old Malli, daughter of a nationalist poet and the group’s soon-to-be-anointed suicide-assassin.

The Terrorist, which opens thus (Friday at the newly expanded Screening Room), was inspired by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi— although its chilling political scenario is as universal as it is specific. Directed by cinematographer Santosh Sivan, this heavily aestheticized Tamil-language movie has intimations of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, both for its sense of spiritual anguish and the vast number of close-ups lavished on the visage of its tormented heroine (played by Ayesha Dharkar, one of the film’s few professional actors).

Malli—approvingly referred to by her group’s leader as “a thinking bomb”—is somber and fleshy, beautiful mainly for her tragic eyes and incongruous youth. Guided through the jungle and into the city where she is to gird herself with explosives and self-detonate in range of a targeted Indian politician, she’s haunted by memories of battle and a brief interlude with a wounded male comrade. We see her kill twice more after the opening scene—and watch her watch as a child is killed in her stead.

Waiting to fulfill her mission, Malli is installed with a garrulous farmer who, naive as he may be, figures out something about her condition that even she didn’t know. Although restrained in its violence, The Terrorist is scarcely subtle in its symbolism. Still, the movie’s bold visual and psychological patterns, as well as its heavy immersion in the natural world, imbue Malli’s journey with a folktale quality.

Moist and a bit melodramatic, The Terrorist is nevertheless taut enough to work as a thriller. (It’s also sufficiently pop to engage a wide audience.) The cinematography is almost too gorgeous. Given to tilts and rack focus shots of one character or another charging away from the camera into some myopic mist, Sivan’s framing hovers on the mannered. The director plants his camera in the foliage and regularly drenches his principals with water. The music can be overemphatic.

The grim subject matter is purposefully at odds with this dewy pantheism. (The strategy is not unlike Terrence Malick’s in The Thin Red Line.) A suspense film with a transcendentalist backbeat, The Terrorist ultimately takes on a religious—or, at least, a metaphysical—aspect. Open-ended though it may be, Malli’s journey toward death has been one long awakening.

  • More exotica: Michael Powell’s craggy, taciturn The Edge of the World, the 1937 feature the late British director considered a defining event in his career, is among the most stylized of expeditionary films. Newly restored—a sold-out attraction at the last New York Film Festival, now showing for a week at Film Forum—this heroically montage-driven quasi ethno-doc suggests a synthesis of Robert Flaherty (whom Powell knew) and Sergei Eisenstein.

    Powell was inspired by the 1930 evacuation of the Hebrides island St. Kilda. Denied permission to shoot a movie there, however, the 32-year-old director made his movie even farther north, in the remote and impressively bleak Shetlands—a realm less Gaelic than Norse in its culture—where he and his crew spent five months filming. Their tight-knit group mirrored that of the island’s inhabitants, a strict religious community divided by the desire of certain members to leave for the “mainland.”

    Scarcely less stark than the foreboding landscape, The Edge of the World‘s narrative pivots on a ritual cliff-climbing contest between two estranged friends, restless Robbie and complacent Andrew, the latter engaged to the island’s lone nubile girl (and Robbie’s twin sister), Ruth. One plunges to his death—in a long, dizzying blitz of close-ups, reaction shots, and panoramic vistas—and the other, cast out by an implacable father, leaves for Scotland with the image of pregnant Ruth superimposed on the sea.

    Its ballad structure reinforced by keening choruses and interludes of fiddle-dancing, The Edge of the World was chosen the year’s Best Foreign Film by the New York Film Critics Circle in 1937 (and might well have been again today). This discreetly adventurous movie looks back at the great Flaherty-Murnau South Seas debacle Tabu and forward to the cracked grandiosity of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves.

  • Another instance of Depression-era heroism, Aviva Kempner’s The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg sings the song of major league baseball’s first Jewish superstar. Slugging first-baseman Hank Greenberg (1911-86) was born in the Bronx but, never a Yankee, powered the Detroit Tigers past the Bombers to consecutive American League pennants in 1934 and 1935 (with one more a decade later).

    Greenberg was twice the American League’s most valuable player but this scarcely describes his significance for co-religionist fans. No hyperbole is too great. This six-foot-four-inch “King of the Bronx”—”My God, nobody ever saw a Jew that big!”—was a “messiah,” another “Moses,” hailed here by no less an authority than Alan Dershowitz as the “single most important Jew to live in the 1930s.” Playing in a city that was, as Kempner points out, the base for the two most vocal anti-Semites in America, Henry Ford and Father Coughlin, Greenberg endured a fair amount of abuse. But, where other Jewish ballplayers might have changed their names to conceal their identities, Greenberg actually refused to play on Yom Kippur—during a pennant race no less!

    The first ballplayer to earn $100,000, Greenberg spent the 1938 season chasing Babe Ruth’s home-run record. Dershowitz expresses gratitude that Greenberg fell two short. Better he be perceived as hitting his homers against Hitler—Greenberg was the first baseball star to join the army, enlisting even before Pearl Harbor. Although scarcely observant, Greenberg was both a paradigm of Jewish pride and proof of Jewish acceptance in America. In this, his equivalent is Bess Myerson, a somewhat younger daughter of the Bronx who, declared Miss America in September 1945, symbolized the post-World War II transformation of the immigrant Jew from “oriental” Other to white American. Ignominiously traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Greenberg played his last season in 1947, as Jackie Robinson embarked on his first—a historical coincidence that Kempner usefully illuminates.

    Treating its hero as sui generis, Kempner’s film ignores the existence of the Jewish strongman Zisha Breitbart, contemporary boxers like heavyweight champ Max Baer, quarterback Sid Luckman, and even the period’s other Jewish ballplayers (Moe Berg, “Harry the Horse” Danning, Sid Gordon), let alone the longing for Jewish power expressed in the Zionist call for new Muskeljuden. In the absence of any greater cultural context, the ritual reiteration of Greenberg’s greatness grows wearisome. Full of fans, family, and too much “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” Hank Greenberg is a cozy affair that leaves the impression of a filmmaker too close to the material.

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