Here’s a pull quote for you: The Tailor of Panama, directed by John Boorman from the John le Carré bestseller, is not nearly the shoddy piece of goods that early reports suggested. Although Columbia signaled impending disaster in classic fashion, leaking news of poor test screenings and rescheduling the film’s release, Tailor is a cut above last season’s best studio offerings. The performances are well turned out. The morality is stylishly gray. The attitude is almost fashionable.
Indeed, The Tailor of Panama was quite excitedly received by veteran French auteurists when it had its world premiere last month in competition at Berlin—and will most likely be hailed by Boorman’s fans here as well. It seems the studio failed to realize that it would be getting a comedy, even though le Carré’s thriller was itself a sort of spy-novel parody in the tradition of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. Boorman pushes the travesty a bit further by casting James Bond himself, Pierce Brosnan, in the role of Andy Osnard, the corrupt, predatory, bad-boy secret agent exiled to Panama by London’s espionage central.
The Bond analogy is a joke that never stops giving, or surfacing. When Andy first meets the title character, Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), ostensibly to purchase some appropriate tropical suits, the name-dropping tailor suavely invokes “Mr. Connery’s choice.” Of course, Harry himself is Andy’s choice. The spy has deduced that this transplanted Savile Row clothier, cloakmaker to the Panamanian ruling class, would prove to be a well-connected source—not least because Harry has his own guilty secrets to protect. Andy blackmails Harry into providing him with information. Spying is “dark and lonely work, like oral sex,” he explains in one of several lines that apparently troubled the California preview audiences that had been primed for a bit of the old 007.
Not entirely wooden, Brosnan is a smooth and satanic operator, idly seducing an embassy attaché (Catherine McCormack) while keeping a lecherous eye on Harry’s wealthy American wife (Jamie Lee Curtis). The frantic, loquacious Harry, meanwhile, is an elaborately good, if foxy, character—a devoted family man, a loyal friend, and, in his underdog weakness, a late variant on the archetypal little Jew of 20th-century popular culture. Not quite Chaplinesque, Rush is, for once, a sympathetic presence.
One of Boorman’s more inspired ideas is to visualize Harry’s internal conversations with his often cited mentor, Uncle Mickey (a cameo by Harold Pinter). Scarcely Jiminy Cricket, Harry’s “conscience” invariably advises him to dissemble. The whole point is that Harry has a genius for invention—he’s most adept at tailoring reality, if not actually stage-managing it. Before long, he is supplying Andy with sensationally embroidered information, having fabricated an entire “Silent Opposition” to the current regime out of the whole cloth of a few onetime student radicals who also happen to be his friends.
Does Andy really care if any of this Silent Opposition actually exists? Not if his London superiors, worried about the international implication of the canal’s return to Panama, buy into the increasingly baroque scenario. The hitherto unknown Opposition needs support. Money begins to flow; the Americans are mobilized to protect their interests (there’s a neat reference to the Bush family’s Panama connections). It’s the empire’s new clothes. The Tailor of Panama is a paean to the power of imaginative fiction. But as Harry is pressured to exploit his unwitting wife, the joke turns deadly. Or so it would seem.
At best, The Tailor of Panama offers the most voluptuously confused instance of Anglo-American immersion in third-world corruption since Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously. But the stakes these days aren’t nearly as high. Boorman’s relatively happy ending (not le Carré’s) is a late change and a poor fit. The director himself knows a bit about tailoring, but he still sent his movie out into the world with a few seams showing.
Faat-Kine, the latest movie by the 78-year-old novelist and dean of African filmmakers, Ousmane Sembène, combines a youngster’s giddy enthusiasm with an elder’s wise tranquility—offering both an introduction and a postscript to the complete Sembène retro that opens at Film Forum next week.
Sembène’s first feature, and the first ever by an African filmmaker, known here as Black Girl, remains a remarkably economical portrait of colonial displacement. Faat-Kine, which is also named for its female subject, more expansively celebrates a woman’s mature, postcolonial achievement. Sembène’s last three features have all had period settings; Faat-Kine is his first contemporary film in the 25 years since Xala, and his heroine is thoroughly modern. The unmarried mother of two college students, Kine (Venus Seye) manages a Dakar gas station and lives in a beautiful home decorated with portraits of Pan-African leaders (Lumumba, Mandela, Nkrumah, Stokely Carmichael). Her mother may be a devout Muslim, but Kine’s religion is self-sufficiency—indeed, born the year that French rule ended, she is the embodiment of independent Senegal.
Kine is cheerful, competent, glamorous, and tough. (A flashback reveals that, after she had been made pregnant by one of her professors, her father tried to set her on fire. The father of her second child is a feckless, Francophile intellectual.) Never at a loss, she runs her office as though she were an admiral and carries herself like a movie star. She’s also hilariously blunt, whether lecturing her friends on the need to use condoms or dispatching a jealous wife who has the nerve to insult her. In socialist realism, Kine would be termed a positive heroine—and a delightful one at that.
Sembène’s movie shares another trait with a particular strain of post-utopian socialist realism, namely the absence of conflict. Sembène does not ignore the social tensions between rich and poor, Christian and Muslim, African and European, male and female, parent and child. But just as each problem presents a didactic opportunity for Kine’s healthy wisdom to prevail, so every image of clean, spacious, prosperous Dakar echoes the sublime order she seems to radiate. (The screen vibrates with the purity of the primary colors Sembène employs; in keeping with the posterlike aesthetic, the performances are declamatory as well.)
Such narrative as there is suggests a minimalist soap opera in which people from Kine’s past keep popping up for a bit of comic reeducation. Faat-Kine is in every way a sunny film. Supremely affirmative, it ends with the funniest, sexiest close-up of the year: Having finally decided upon a suitable mate, Kine welcomes him to her with outstretched arms and wiggling toes.
Given the bruising camerawork, convoluted chronology, and overall brutal gusto that characterizes Amores Perros, anyone watching Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first feature—a critical hit at the last New York Film Festival—might be pardoned for imagining that the title might be Spanish for Reservoir Dogs. In fact, it’s “Love’s a Bitch.”
If it bleeds, it leads. Opening with a mad car chase careening through downtown Mexico City and then the intersection collision that proves to be the key event in the three interlocked but successively recounted stories, Amores Perros is undeniably high-powered. At 153 minutes, it’s also punishingly overlong. The movie’s first episode, a squalid brother-versus-brother slum drama about a prize-fighting dog, is a genuine throat grabber, but the orchestrated tumult more than exhausts the resources of the filmmaker’s style. Although canines figure throughout, along with grizzled hit men and neurotic celebrities, the movie is not for pet lovers. Its most memorable image—a punch line, no less—is a gore-drenched mess of dead dogs. (The movie’s end-credit disclaimer that no animals were injured might be construed as a post?punch line.)
In a stone rave, The New York Times called Amores Perros “one of the first art films to come out of Mexico since Buñuel worked there.” It hardly matters whether or not this was written in ignorance of the 30-year oeuvre of Arturo Ripstein, the internationally known films of Jaime Humberto Hermosillo and Paul Leduc, the outsider movies produced by Nicolás Echevarría, recent efforts by younger directors like Dana Rotberg and Luis Estrada, or even the work of cult filmmakers Alejandro Jodorowsky and Juan Lopez Moctezuma. What’s suggestive is the total redefinition of “art film” in American terms.
Michael Atkinson’s article about Film Forum’s Sembène retrospective