Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Constant Gardener

The Constant Gardener is a good movie. Well made, well acted, and pretty darn engaging. It can be described in a number of ways: suspense film, romance, and mystery, appealing to audiences on a number of levels. The cinematography is absolutely stunning: even when the camera scans over the devastating poverty evidenced by the rusting shacks in which the Kenyans of the film live, the images are crisp and shockingly realistic, with bright colors and an epic scale. The landscape that bookends the film’s brutal scenes of tragedy amazes the eye with effervescent shades of red and blue, obscuring the true nature of the rocky surface featured and creating a sort of dream world in which the main character finds peace.

Jeffrey Caine’s script, adapted from the novel, intercuts present day scenes with flashbacks of the past, giving the audience privileged insight into events that our hero, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), does not share. Through this juxtaposition of past and present, Caine seems to reveal one truth about Tessa Quayle, but as the film progresses, Caine carefully builds quite a different view of Justin’s wife and her work. Deeply engaging and constantly evolving, the story exposes layers of betrayal and lies to find the truth within this story of corporate corruption and one woman’s devotion to a cause.

At the end of the film, I sat in the theatre trying to absorb the beauty of the unavoidable ending (I’ll try not to give this away since this is a film, after all, that is about not knowing what lies beneath the surface). Within the miles of credits running down the screen, the director included a special dedication to all those who have died because they “gave a damn.” “Wait a second,” I thought, “isn’t this a fictional story?”

As evidenced by his dedication to aid workers like Tessa, director Fernando Meirelles believes that there are elements of truth within his movie. Certainly, the author of the novel upon which the film is based, John Le Carré, writes about international espionage from a position of some authority. Having a father who was imprisoned for fraud and having spent several years in the British Foreign Service, Le Carré writes about a world with which he is quite familiar. Meirelles reinforced these elements of truth by insisting on filming in the specific countries mentioned in Le Carré’s novel, lending greater authenticity to the film.

Yet, I doubt anyone would argue that this film is a documentary. The characters are imaginary, and though actual Kenyans are featured, sometimes in moving close-ups, the film’s focus is the conspiracy, not day-to-day life in Africa. Still, on a thematic level, the pharmaceutical company that exploits the Africans desperate for AIDS medication in the film may not exist, but it certainly can represent corporate corruption on a macro level and first world abandonment of Africa on a micro level.

Considering all of these elements that contribute to the realism of the film, I wondered if Meirelles intends a didactic message with his movie? Juxtaposing that with the complete disjuncture between the images presented on the screen and the experience of watching the film itself, I wondered further if the film could accomplish this possible didactic intent. Watching this film on a rainy day, in a comfortable theatre, returning home to my apartment complete with running water and every comfort a Tivo-owning person could want, I questioned the power of this film, and any film, really.

Closing us off from the rest of the world, a theatre invites its audience to enter the world of the screen, but it is a two-dimensional world with the actors and the setting represented by mere images. There is little that is visceral about a film—sitting in the dark and watching a series of photographs move by at lightening speed, movies cannot ever recreate real life. As the audiences leaves the darkened space of the cinema and opens the door to the bright light of the sun outside, the experience within the theatre is almost completely overwhelmed and wiped out by the garish break of the fantasy world created.

Contemplating this question of a possible pedagogic objective within the film, perhaps an important element is the intended outcome of this educational lesson. Does Meirelles hope a viewing of The Constant Gardener will inspire someone to join the Peace Corps? Or in a less dramatic gesture, does he hope someone in the audience will leave the theatre with a commitment to consider more carefully consumer choices based on how corporations produce their product (i.e. refusing to buy Nikes sneakers made by children in third world countries, etc.)? Or on the simplest level, does he hope the audience will simply leave the theatre with a renewed desire to “give a damn”? Does art have the power to produce change?

In the same way that Hurricane Katrina exposed the poverty that is not so hidden in a country as rich as America, this film exposes similar images of horror. A baby with a belly bloated by hunger and people with dark skin waiting in long lines for their medication are not unfamiliar images: we have seen them before in television ads asking for donations and news reports of droughts and other national disasters. Yet in one of the movie’s most powerful moments, the lovely and pale Tessa breast feeds an African baby whose mother is dying. Having lost her own child, this moment is particularly poignant. It also affirms Tessa’s willingness to do anything, from the grand to the minor, to help these people. At that moment, in that way, she helped that baby live. But for us, does the impact of these photos of suffering last longer than a mere moment?

The Constant Gardener makes its hero pay a severe price for his complacency. Repeatedly attempting to convince his wife to abandon her work or limit her passion, Justin later adopts her zeal. But even Justin does not seem truly changed by the experiences of the film. He learns that he blissfully ignored and even contributed to corruption, but does he recognize the value of the human lives at stake? The choices he makes are a love note to his wife, but after he says that he let her down, he doesn’t make clear if his mistake was to refuse to allow her to do her work without protest or if his mistake was that he didn’t join her efforts himself.

A movie like this can challenge the myth of American security and apathy. Are we merely living in a Matrix-type dream world created to encourage our ignorance? We buy products without any sense of the environmental or human impact caused by the means of production. We elect government officials and then simply trust them to act with honor and integrity, clinging to our faith in them even when evidence points to the contrary. Is this because human compassion takes too much effort or is simply too inconvenient?

Tessa certainly evidences a willingness to sacrifice her own body and her family’s peaceable state to pursue her crusade to stop the murder of Africans. Yet, as a feminist, I can’t help but mention that Tessa’s miscarriage could be viewed as an indirect critique of her efforts: she loses her baby because she refuses to stop her work. She is a bad mother because her baby does not come first. Does this scene actually work against the nobility of Tessa's sacrifice?

It may be important to note that Tessa is independently wealthy, revealed when Tessa’s cousin asks Justin what he plans to do now that she has left him so comfortable financially. The moment is quite brief and is not referenced again, but the moment is significant nevertheless. Tessa has the freedom of wealth: she can finance her education with ease, she can travel to remote places in the world without fear of bankruptcy, and she can justify her own luxury with the knowledge that she is fighting for those less fortunate than herself.

Most of us do not have this luxury: the luxury of philanthropy and charitable action. We have to work to live. Yet in truth, some of these questions are beside the point—for this film not only doesn’t provide a specific didactic message, but it also does not provide a means to achieve those ends: a path, if you will for audience members to follow to be like Tessa. There’s a real question at the end of this movie about who won and if the costs were too high. In the end, perhaps the film has the power to make someone like me write for a few hours, but otherwise its impact is as brief as each image on the screen.


At 1:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In some respect though the movie:
a) Took me to a place I didn't know about.
b) Made me aware of problems that I was not aware of.
c) Influenced the way I think about corporations and the way they operate.
While the movie undoubtedly had no immediate effects, in the long term I suspect it will affect the way I interpret new data- I will read a story about Africa and I will likely feel differently about it.
Where I think the Constant Gardener is most successful is that it wonderfully masks it's didacticism as a spy thriller. It tricked me into caring about the causes the film represents by getting me to care about the characters within the film. I was very impressed by it.
Now as to whether art can change the world- Vaclav Havel was a playwright and president of Czecholslovakia...


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