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Arts & Entertainment Preview - May 2000

B Y   E L L A   T A Y L O R

For the People

   Monsieur Lefebvre:
   Who's with me?

No matter how grand or minor the scale of his movies, the French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier is always, in his way, a passionate advocate of the people. Set in a depressed former mining town in northern France, his latest film, It All Starts Today, takes on a social-service system so buried in red tape and politics that the right hand has no idea what the left is doing, and both hands are hopelessly detached from the constituency they mean to serve. Kindergarten teacher Daniel Lefebvre (played with feverish grace by Philippe Torreton) loves his job but lacks the diplomatic skills to manipulate the education bureaucracy on behalf of unemployed parents who are so ground down that they cannot act in their own behalf. After a couple of risky decisions land him in hot water, the frustrated teacher and his supporters begin to organize their beleaguered community. For all its fearless didacticism and its documentary style (several of the actors are nonprofessional, and the children come from a real kindergarten class), It All Starts Today is as poetically realized and specific as any of Tavernier's dramas. The director builds rich histories for his characters, pulling back with a dispassionate gaze to allow them to live for themselves rather than for an audience or an idea.

Loveless Story

Crudup (left) and Connelly   

"I want a life of unbelievable adventure and profligacy," confides Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly), a child of the sixties working with the sanctuary movement, to her lover, Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup), a Coast Guard officer. "And at the last possible moment -- sainthood." Unfortunately, the sainthood takes over and flattens all else in Keith Gordon's adaptation (with the screen-writer Robert Dillon) of Scott Spencer's novel Waking the Dead. Gordon has built a career making soulful, intelligent literary adaptations (notably A Midnight Clear and the underappreciated Mother Night), but not even his evident gifts can transcend the glib mediocrity of Spencer's story. After Sarah's apparent death in a car bombing in 1972, Fielding goes on with his life, but a decade later, on the verge of realizing long-nurtured senatorial ambitions, he is brought low by a spiritual crisis nudged by Sarah, who keeps materializing, dispensing sermons on moral rectitude and questioning his motives for seeking power. Less a love story than a tale of two decades' discrete Zeitgeists at war, Waking the Dead trails along, cutting back and forth in time, to its pat conclusion. Crudup's performance as Fielding is so expressionless and weak-kneed that both his passion for Sarah and his crisis feel more simulated than experienced.

Contemporary Commandments

The Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose premature death, in 1996, came not long after he surprised the film world with the abrupt news of his retirement, is best known in the United States for his trilogy Three Colors: Blue, White, Red, made after he set up base in Paris. Acclaimed though they were, these movies pale before Kieslowski's true masterpiece, The Decalogue, a cycle of ten films made for Polish television in 1988. This wonderful work, long unavailable in North America outside of art houses and film festivals, has at last been released on home video. Set in apartments of a drab Warsaw high-rise, the films examine the Ten Commandments in the contemporary context of troubled people who could be living anywhere. A Catholic professor of ethics -- an old woman with a face shining with generous intelligence -- is confronted with her apparent betrayal of a Jewish child during World War II. The discovery of an unopened letter from a mother who died in childbirth promises to unleash the long-suppressed eros between her grown daughter and the father who raised the daughter alone. In Thou shalt not commit adultery, one of the cycle's most celebrated films, a lonely young man gets in over his head while spying on his beautiful, unhappy neighbor. Kieslowski grinds no religious ax and answers no questions: Each story deals with the anguished effort to make moral choices in a world bereft of spiritual guidelines -- a tart comment, no doubt, on religious oppression in Communist Poland. Gorgeously shot by several of Poland's finest cinematographers, with a wistful score by Zbigniew Preisner, The Decalogue is a classic of wise and witty humanistic filmmaking. (The complete cycle of films, released as a five-volume set for $99.95, is available from Facets Multi-Media, Inc.; 773-281-9075 or

Ella Taylor is a film critic for LA Weekly.

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Photo Credits -- It All Starts Today: Little Bear/Le Studio Canal Plus. Waking the Dead: Takashi Seida. The Decalogue: Facets Multi-Media, Inc.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.

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