� The Hitchhiker's Guide | Main | Roadblock �

May 01, 2005

The Interpreter: An Emotional Portrait of the UN

I swore that I was not going to see this movie because of the crapstorm its advertisement made in the Tivo community. I changed my mind and it was worth it. As a meditation on the hopes and dreams of non-violent negotiation as the central purpose of the UN it does a fine job, but misses being more by leaving out one crucial dimension.

Sean Penn has created a memorable character that seems to blend Peter Falk & Robert DeNiro into a smoldering soul on the verge of enlightenment, explosion and collapse. For some reason I am reminded of Samuel L. Jackson in 'Red Violin'. There is a combination of strength and sensitivity both characters possess.

I got particularly annoyed by Nicole Kidman's hair which obscured her right eye five different ways in each close-up. Every time the camera would switch away from her and come back, the strands of blonde would be somewhere else on her face. It completely destroyed the continuity of some critical scenes. Where her voice acting was crisp and perfectly precise carrying a perfectly impenetrable subtext, I had to close my eyes to stay in the drama a couple times.

But where there was drama, it was nicely done. As a deeply layered and nuanced mystery, 'The Interpreter' will hold up well. As twisty plotters go, 'The Interpreter' is deliciously emotional. Not since 'The Siege' has the emotional relationship between individuals gone through wrenching changes like this. It's a nice change and makes many more such twisty movies look like cheese mazes and gauntlets. Nobody's agenda is particulary clear and in Pollack's hands it makes restraint the only virtue of consequence.

Pollack captures the run-down, low-tech worn out look and feel of the UN. Never has the place's grit and granduer been captured quite this way. Although the byzantine quality of its operations is not quite revealed, the UN is presented as a functional bureacracy that nevertheless commands respect and attention if not inspiration of any sort from any of the film's characters, save Kidman. Her very life is profoundly influenced by patience with nuance, and yet because of her background she has little faith herself in public spiritedness. Negotiation is her forte and she holds all of cards closely while maintaining a straight face and a demand to be respected. She thus becomes an apt metaphor for the institution, an impractically idealistic and brave creature that lies through its teeth on a daily basis.

'The Interpreter' is full of mystery and competence and handles its subject matter without being preachy. It works on both metaphorical and personal levels. It reminds us that everything remains possible and that the only thing that is final is death. So why not put down the gun?

The central lesson of 'The Interpreter' is revealed as a 'Ku' custom of justice. Whether or not such a Southern African tradition is real is beside the point, it is nonetheless deeply resonant and reflects a dimension of healing and curing I have often been attuned to.

The Ku do not speak the name of the dead until a suitable period of time has elapsed. To call them back into one's life is to prolong the suffering of their loss. It is not until the memory is purged of ill feelings of pain and loss that the name can be spoken, the aim is to defeat grief.

When a 'Ku' family discovers the man who has killed one of their members, a year from the day of the murder they bind and gag the killer and march him into the river. The killer's family stands on one shore and the victim's family on the other. The victim's family decides whether or not to go into the river and save the killer. If they do not, then they are believed to greive for the rest of their lives - they cannot be healed. But if they save the life of the killer, then they prove that the value of life itself transcends that of revenge. They are healed.

I cannot imagine that healing alone can be sufficient. There must also be a cure. But that is an angle of the process of grief that Pollack misses, and so he reduces the dimensions of death and life to the terms of expediency. This is acceptable for an artist who is concerned primarily with matters of the heart, and suitable for the telling of the story 'The Interpreter' tells. But take his call on the use of guns vs words any further than dramatic entertainment we must be compelled to include the matter of cure. Aside from the dimensions of hope and frustration so vividly portrayed in this film, my judgements about the use and value of the UN must include that missing dimension of material practicality. Justice that heals but doesn't cure is not justice.

Posted by mbowen at May 1, 2005 12:19 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry: