FILM JUNE 25, 2008
The Edge of Heaven
When Did You Last See Your Father?
Sony Pictures Classics
Tolstoy was the source of an earlier Sergei Bodrov film, Prisoner of the Mountains, a subtly shaded drama about two Russian soldiers. Bodrov's new film, Mongol, could hardly be more different. Prisoner was a film that existed as a vehicle for characterization; Mongol has just enough characterization to sustain its own reason for being--cinematic fullness.
Here he tells the story of the boyhood and youth and early manhood of Genghis Khan, before the world conqueror acquired that title (he was then called Temudgin). Bodrov, who wrote the screenplay with Arif Aliyev, clearly wanted to revel in all the visual possibilities--extravagances, sometimes--that the story would permit, and he makes the lavish most of them. Some of us occasionally mourn the passing of screen epics that stunned us with size and sweep. Bodrov to the rescue. Possibly with digital help, he packs the screen with the prodigality that we sometimes guiltily miss. What basically gives the picture its particular power is the fact that a highly talented director is having a great time making an old-fashioned picture, certainly with ingenuity and vision but with pleasure in its plenty rather than small-scale finesse.
Oh, there is surface sobriety. Mongol life and customs in the late twelfth century are treated gravely. The boy Temudgin, about nine, is taken by his father to a distant tribe to choose his future bride. On the way, however, they stop overnight with other people, and a local girl called Borte boldly chooses him. He responds, boyishly. His father clucks, but the juvenile engagement lasts through life--through several kinds of life.
The chief pride of these Mongol men is fighting; individual combat and war are their code, their purpose. (The cast breathes fire and cunning.) We see Temudgin as a youth in his first fights and battles, his alliances and enmities; we see the young man glorying even further in his soldiering. His various battles, interwoven neatly with his happy marriage to Borte, are fierce. In one episode, he even spends some time, after capture by an enemy, as a stiff-necked slave. In fact, there is enough action in his life before he becomes Genghis Khan (which we learn only in a closing credit) to fill a film--this one.
One incident has depth beyond the warrior code. Borte is kidnapped by an enemy after her marriage, and by the time Temudgin rescues her, she is pregnant. Unhesitatingly he takes her back, asserting loudly that the child is his, though it may not be. Immediately we think of the moment in John Ford's The Searchers when John Wayne rescues Natalie Wood from a tribe that has kidnapped her and almost kills her because she has been defiled. Temudgin is more generous.
Other reminders of Ford abound, as well as reminders of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, in the magnificent vistas of riders distant on the steppes, often in the snow. The climax of the picture is an immense battle between Temudgin's army and his half-brother's. (A thunderstorm breaks, pictorially helpful, during the battle.) Olivier's Henry V and Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky must also be tucked away in Bodrov's head, and all to the good.
Mongol, like its epic predecessors, is more than principally male: it is a ballad in the poetics of masculinity. (Borte is another version of Penelope, the woman who waits for her man.) It is not just about what men did and do, it is a flight from fact into juvenile fantasy, muscled with adult power. But where sword-slicing pictures often bore quickly, Mongol grips us. Bodrov knows so precisely what he is doing and why that we almost feel we are viewing a connoisseur's example of a species.
The writer-director Fatih Akin was born in Germany of Turkish immigrant parents and takes his cultural situation as his subject. The Edge of Heaven follows the lives of Turks (as they still think of themselves) in Bremen and, with those who return, in Istanbul--follows them with comprehension and sporadic surges of pity. Like so many immigrants in so many countries, these Turks are glad of their newfound jobs and comfort, and regretful that they couldn't have had them back home.
Akin's story articulates his theme of cultural contrasts. In Bremen a middle- aged man called Ali visits a prostitute (Turkish), invites her to live with him, and then, in a drunken fit, accidentally kills her. Ali's son Nejat, who is a professor of German in Germany (!), penitently goes to Istanbul to find and help the woman's daughter, Ayten. She, however, is a political radical and has had to flee Turkey--for Germany. There she meets a young German woman, Lotte, whose lover she becomes. Matters wind along in vivid cultural colors until finalities and reconciliations.
Each of the people, German or Turk, is thoroughly known to Akin, especially in his or her oddities. But Akin's basic interest in dealing with them is more general than particular. He is constructing a panorama of a modern mixed society that we know about--everyone is aware of the numbers of immigrants and refugees and exiles in the world--but which he wants us to encounter sensorily. He succeeds: all his people seem to step off the screen toward us. He is helped by a redoubtable cast, especially Baki Davrak and Nurgül Yesilçay as Nejat and Ayten. In the relatively small role of Lotte's mother, Hanna Schygulla, who was an eminence in so many Fassbinder films, is lovely.
But the care that Akin expends on his people is skimped in the structure of his screenplay. Accidental meetings and coincidences are overused. Bumps and questions interfere. For instance, the first section of the film concentrates on Ali and the prostitute: the son, Nejat, is peripheral. After Ali kills the woman and goes to jail, Nejat takes over the film until Ayten, whom he is looking for in Istanbul, takes the picture away from him. And we never learn about Ali's sentence for the killing until, after we have nearly forgotten about him, he turns up in Istanbul. Probably he served a term for manslaughter, we must guess.
These reservations are not afterthoughts: they bother a bit while the film is in progress. Despite them, however, we get to spend two hours in the company of some people who exist in variously engaging ways.
A British film called When Did You Last See Your Father? affords its own special pleasure. It is quintessentially familiar; yet instead of dampening us with foreknowledge, this fact makes us settle in our seats cozily.
We are told at the start that this is a true story. Evidently, then, life is up to its old trick of imitating art. The screenplay by David Nicholls is based on a book by Blake Morrison, and the thirtyish man in the film is called Blake Morrison. His father, a country doctor, is Arthur Morrison. Right from the start we see that Blake has a complex relationship with Arthur, whom he hates--for dad's overbearing air and velvet-covered ego--at the same time that he can't shake loose of innate filial bondage. Then Arthur comes down with terminal cancer and is bed-bound at home.
Without undue canniness, we can deduce that the film will consist of intertwined flashbacks and present-day moments, through which the father-son relationship will be explored. Even those who have not seen Robert Anderson's I Never Sang for My Father or John Mortimer's A Voyage Round My Father can foretell the shape of the film as soon as this opening situation is set. The curious point is that, in this case, the expectation is welcome: we know we are going to get a warm run-through of happily conventional emotions. It is like sitting down to a dish that we have enjoyed before, confident that we will enjoy it again.
Blake as boy and youth and man profits from strengths in his father, is hurt by some of his father's behavior, and is shaken by discovering some of his father's flaws. These flashback scenes are poised against moments around the dying father's bed, and all of them coalesce into perceptive portraits of father and son. Pathos soon prevails, of course, less because of the cancer than because of the ruthless torque of time.
What ensures our pleasure is the dialogue, which is supple, and the quality of the acting. Colin Firth plays the mature Blake and proves yet again that his appearance in a role means that all the qualities of the man, hidden and plain, will be affectingly drawn. Jim Broadbent, ever welcome, plays Arthur and, seemingly casually, creates a more than credible man. Broadbent is one of those actors whose name on a film creates a glow before it begins. We can be glad, too, that the excellent Juliet Stevenson plays Arthur's wife: we can only wish that she had more to do.
The director, Anand Tucker, presumably had some effect on the cast's excellence, but with the rest of his work here, Tucker has been artily intrusive. He almost seems to have been embarrassed by the straightforward screenplay and felt that he had to lay on the picturesque in order to deepen it. Instead of presenting the story as simply as it exists, Tucker constantly pans slowly one way or the other or zooms in slowly or shoots past objects large in the foreground or through the backs of chairs. Once again in the history of film, less would have been more.
By Stanley Kauffmann