Cinema Tackles Trouble on the Home Front

Many of the Montreal World Film Festival's offerings shared a concern with poverty, abuse, and oppression

TREND-spotting can be a tricky business at a wide-ranging event like the World Film Festival, which concluded in Montreal here recently. The movies were so varied that minor similarities could be mistaken for major new tendencies in cinema - promptly reported by eager journalists, then quickly forgotten since they were only short-lived coincidences in the first place.

Now and then a genuine trend presents itself, though, and that happened at Montreal this year. Many of the festival's strongest offerings shared a disturbing but noteworthy preoccupation - a concern with the tragic links between poverty, domestic abuse, and oppression of women, explored through stories that were deeply personal in content and political in their implications.

No better example appeared at Montreal than Once Were Warriors, a New Zealand production that went on to win several of the festival's prizes, including those for best picture and best actress; it was also the all-time box-office champion in its native country. Set in a distressingly poor urban neighborhood, the film centers on the household of Jake and Beth, an intermittently employed laborer and his ethnic Maori wife.

Jake is a sociable sort who enjoys nothing better than drinking, singing, and carousing. He's also a brute who doesn't hesitate to batter Beth when she isn't quick enough in catering to his whims. She tolerates his abuse partly because she's used to it, and partly because she can't imagine any alternative to the family life she's always known. This awful situation has further consequences in the experiences of her three children: a boy who joins a Maori gang, another who's removed from the family by welfare authorities, and a daughter whose beauty and sensitivity become her greatest liabilities.

``Once Were Warriors'' is powerful in the way a sledgehammer is powerful. It's not an artful film, but it conveys its socially urgent message so ferociously and relentlessly that you can't help being swept away by it, even when it turns sentimental in its view of ethnic nostalgia as an escape route from modern-day demoralization.

Adding to its effectiveness is a set of striking performances, most notably by Rena Owen, whose portrayal of Beth was the talk of the Montreal festival. Director Lee Tamahori said there were many in New Zealand who would have been happier if its depictions of contemporary strife had never reached the screen. Happily, reaction here was quite the opposite.

Fun, a co-production between US and Canadian filmmakers, also involves an abusive father. His face never appears on-screen, but when the filmmakers introduced their movie here, they took care to mention him as an unseen influence on the story's horrible events.

The main characters are Bonnie and Hillary, teenage girls who decide to liven up one of their boring days by murdering an elderly woman. Unfolding their story at breakneck speed, the film careens between present-tense scenes at a juvenile-detention center - shot in grainy black-and-white like a TV documentary - and full-color flashbacks to events surrounding the crime. Other key characters are a journalist and a social worker, each trying to break through the girls' defenses and unravel the causes of their behavior.

One cause is the sexual abuse heaped on Hillary by her father in the past; another is the spiritual deadness of the girls' suburban world, which cares little and knows even less about the inner lives of its younger inhabitants. Of all the sad ironies connected with Bonnie and Hillary, the greatest is the astonishing potential they show for being richly productive individuals with tremendous resources of energy and creativity. The misdirection that assails their lives is as needless as it is disastrous, and ``Fun'' examines this socially generated wastefulness with blistering candor.

Rafal Zielinski directed the drama from James Bosley's finely tuned screenplay. The acting, especially by Alicia Witt and Renee Humphrey as the killers, is nothing short of explosive.

The great Mexican filmmaker Arturo Ripstein had two films at Montreal, and while The Queen of the Night fell short of his highest standard, his brilliant Principle and End more than compensated. It focuses on an urban family left destitute when the father, a minumum-wage worker, unexpectedly dies.

Determined to keep the household together, his widow pins her hopes on her most intelligent son, channeling all the efforts of her other children into supporting his academic career so he can eventually lift them all from poverty.

What the family members tragically learn is that forces of wealth, power, and privilege have a monopoly in their society, stacking the odds against their chances of success.

At a time when simplistic rhetoric about ``family values'' often outstrips meaningful discussion, ``Principle and End'' looks at a family that overflows with these values, and shows how they're rendered impotent by entrenched interests using poverty, ignorance, and injustice to shore up a self-serving status quo. At once intelligent and moving, Ripstein's film is a remarkable achievement.

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