`Closet Land' Raises Disturbing Issues

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IF you decide to see ``Closet Land,'' be certain you know what you're in for. The movie has only two characters: a woman who's been arrested and the man who's in charge of her case. Most of the film shows him interrogating and torturing her, in sessions that grow steadily more brutal and intense.

Watching this, you may feel the picture is voyeuristic, even pornographic. But as time passes, you get to know the characters better, and you begin to sense the attitudes and beliefs that underlie their behaviors.

The man, a government agent who calls himself a ``seeker after truth,'' seems to be convinced that the most horrible acts are justified if they bring law and order to society. The woman is a more surprising figure. She writes children's books for a living, and her arrest resulted from the authorities' suspicion that she had placed subversive messages into her seemingly harmless tales.

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She rejects this charge as false and even absurd. Who could find political meaning in a story like her latest one: ``Closet Land,'' about a little girl who makes imaginary friends when she's locked in a big, dark closet?

During the film we gradually learn that the author is not involved in politics, but that she's dangerous in other ways to a government hungry for power and control. Her imagination - that is, her sense of personhood and individuality - is so strong that she's able to withstand threats the strongest power can inflict.

Near the end of the movie we learn the roots of her courage, in a childhood incident that scarred her, yet also strengthened her for the rest of her life. At this point, the film takes on a whole new meaning that transforms everything we've watched, turning the story into an indictment not just of government power but of male domination in all its forms, from the broadly political to the intimately personal.

``Closet Land'' was written and directed by Radha Bharadwaj, a filmmaker from India who has worked in the United States for the past several years.

What's most impressive about her movie isn't just its dramatic intensity, but its strength as a political statement: It proclaims its message loud and clear, taking a forthright stance against the oppression of women, artists, and everyone with limited power and privilege.

Also striking is Ms. Bharadwaj's ability to maintain steady visual interest in what's essentially a one-set movie, and to elicit solid acting from two performers (Madeleine Stowe and Alan Rickman) who must carry the whole picture by themselves, without a single supporting player.

You have to stay with ``Closet Land'' until the end in order to hear its statement clearly, and you may find the action too brutal for comfort along the way. The film also makes a wrong turn occasionally, especially when Bharadwaj tries too hard to diversify its action with self-conscious tricks and digressions. Still, no recent movie has gotten me thinking nearly so hard about issues of power and domination - particularly the male varieties - and the way movies ought to be exploring these things.

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