Time to get out the good word a little early about In Darkness. It opens March 2, and serious, challenging movies such as this often have difficulty staying in theaters. It is no blockbuster, but it is one of the best Holocaust dramatizations and surely one of the year’s best films.
Agnieszka Holland, Polish despite the surname, directed this factually based film set in the old Polish city of Lvov (now Lviv in Western Ukraine, once Lemberg to the Germans). Its key figure is a Pole, Leo “Poldek” Socha, who works on the sewers that run under not only his Catholic church but the nearby Jewish ghetto being destroyed by the retreating Germans in 1944. Played by Robert Wieckiewicz, whose tough, boiled-potato face would fit perfectly into the Polish districts of Chicago, Poldek isn’t above pilfering or buying stuff from desperate Jews whose Lvov roots go back to the 1200s.
He has the old Slavic Christian prejudices and expletives about Jews as grasping, quarrelsome “Christ killers.” His big, blonde wife, Wanda (very appealing Kinga Preis), informs him that Jesus was, for sure, a Jew. Their lovely daughter is the sign of a good marriage, and In Darkness is centrally about how Poldek finds the good man inside himself.
After guiding a small group of Jewish refugees from the ghetto to obscure spaces in the sewers, he continues to sell them food and is irritated when their haughty, German-speaking elder haggles with him about costs. But he can’t get his conscience free of these people, especially the women and kids. Poldek has accepted the darkness, stench, rats, and dreck, but he can’t accept human beings living there or being hunted like animals. Grudgingly but courageously, he is on his way to being one of those whom Israel will later honor as “righteous among the Gentiles.”
Holland and writer David F. Shamoon have created a throbbing reality that highlights fearful faces, often by torchlight, in dank, grim spaces. Few of the people seem generic, though a top Nazi officer does prance by on a horse to a Strauss waltz. Having the bravest Jewish resister played by a strapping, Aryan-looking German (Benno Fürmann) is a little touchy. The two sex scenes down in the sewers seem questionable.
Holland, 63, is one of those strong, honest, humane directors (The Secret Garden, Europa Europa, Washington Square) whose films get terrific reviews but seldom leave the art-film “ghetto.” In Darkness is a consummate work, not so soberly elegant as Polanski’s The Pianist and less rigged to make a Total Statement about the Final Solution than Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Next to Oskar Schindler, Poldek seems a modest hero. That is why he deeply fits this scared, self-doubting, honestly detailed heroism, and by the end he looms large in our gratitude.
Holland was mentored by the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who made exciting history dramas. This film is her virtual companion for his Kanal (1957), about resistance fighters living in the Warsaw sewers and subways. Her movie is less richly stylized (though beautifully shot), yet it is imperatively alive and fraught with danger we can taste. A sudden image of white figures dashing through woods reminded me briefly of Paul Caponigro’s great photograph “Running White Deer,” but then I saw, stunned, that these are naked Jewish women being hounded to slaughter.
All Holocaust dramas employ tactics of entertainment and so are always at a moral disadvantage compared to great documentaries (such as Night and Fog, Carpati, A Film Unfinished). But In Darkness ascends to a high rank, righteous among its kind.
When Marlon Brando gets a little salute in Chico & Rita, the movie misses a beat. Instead of riffing on The Wild One, it should have evoked Guys and Dolls in which Marlon goes to Havana. Otherwise, this delightful animated film scores abundantly, and you might not see a more sensual pleasure-giver in quite a few movie moons.
Directed by Javier Mariscal (designer), Tono Errando (animator), and Fernando Trueba (who made the fine Cuban jazz doc Calle 54), Chico & Rita is about pianist Chico and singer Rita, their instantly fused love, their volcanic rupture, and their long soul-pining that bops from 1948 Havana to ’50s New York and Las Vegas. Most crucially it is about Cuban jazz, its sultry, lyrical throb of horns and hot call of congas. Bebo Valdés, piano maestro and a figure in Calle 54, did the basic score (Chico is partly based on him).
Thrilling are the bows to Tito Puente, Chano Pozo, Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker, Woody Herman, even Igor Stravinsky, plus a funny tip of the hat to Thelonious Monk. Politics, racism, and gangsters intrude but do not snarl the romantic beat, including some truly animated sex. The cartoon drawing is pleasurably rich but not archivally fussy, evoking old Havana as a web of motifs both Hispanic and Deco, as well as New York and Vegas in their high tide of retro-vamp hipsterism.
As in many animations, the story is skeletal. Also generic and a touch corny. But couldn’t the same be said of many good songs and musicals? Chico & Rita has a molten heat of belief in its lovers and its music. Aficionados may recall the Afro-Brazilian fevers of Black Orpheus and the musical episodes in the great Soviet-Cuban reverie I Am Cuba. And, yes, Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons dancing in Guys and Dolls.
Officer Dave Brown is a smoker, lover, sexist, bigot, bull spinner, war vet, and rogue son of a rogue cop. Questionable corpses litter his service record with the LAPD. Woody Harrelson is built like a bullet to play the role and is directed by Oren Moverman, who in The Messenger took Harrelson to a new level of excellence. Rampart was largely written by noir novelist James Ellroy, a cops-and-crimes addict who can cruise a moral slum faster than anyone can tear it down.
We watch Dave, suspected as a rotten apple by his superiors, digging a more squalid hole for himself. Rampart, which is like a hybrid of Colors and Bad Lieutenant, has an overspill of talent (Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Cynthia Nixon, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Audra McDonald, Anne Heche, Ice Cube, Steve Buscemi, and, ace as Dave’s daughter Helen, Brie Larson). Still living near his two ex-wives, who are also sisters, Dave is not just a loose cannon but a multiple warhead of screwy, arrogant ideas. His story is pungent with sordid lies and manipulation.
Maybe because writer Ellroy was so busy slumming and sleazing the material, the film never gains much plot speed or the absorbing grip of last year’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Too many scenes are sagging mood-sponges, despite strong dialogue (as when trophy-wife Wright mentions her old husband: “He’s taking a six-hour nap. I’m taking a five-hour vodka”). Harrelson is highly credible as this toxic urban dog, but Dave Brown is never much more than a loser.
Oscar pix picks. These are my favorites and my guesses for the Oscars contest beaming our way Sunday night.
Picture (my fave: Moneyball; will win: The Artist); Director (my faves: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris and Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist; will win: Allen or Hazanavicius); Actor (my faves: Brad Pitt, Moneyball, and Jean Dujardin, The Artist; will win: George Clooney, The Descendants); Actress (my fave: Viola Davis, The Help; will win: Davis or Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady); Supporting Actor (my fave and likely the winner: Christopher Plummer, Beginners); Supporting Actress (my fave: Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs; will win: Bérénice Bejo, The Artist).
Reviewed in the movie capsules: Act of Valor, Father’s Day, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Perfect Sense.