Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Constant Gardener

Fernando Meirelles, 2005

Majestic Bay, late September 2005

Score: 6

Major reservations with several capital M's. I can't quite drop it below recommended because of the craft, care, and exquisite beauty that goes into much of the first 3/4 of this film--not that the early sections of the film aren't a bit uneven; they certainly are, but there's enough here to make this worth your time. I liked City of God, but I couldn't help but think Meirelles' eye was a bit ahead of his head. That gap has widened considerably here. I'm drawn to his visual representations of poverty in both Brazil and Kenya.

One annoying thing about The response to the Constant Gardener is the notion that it represents a cutting edge insight or sophisticated commentary on global politics. The generally sensible A.O. Scott:

If what it says provokes some indignant rebuttal (be on the lookout for op-ed columns and public relations bulletins challenging its dire view of big pharmaceutical companies), so much the better. In pointedly applying President Bush's phrase "axis of evil" to multinational corporations rather than to rogue states, the movie shows a willingness to risk didacticism in the service of encouraging discussion. This strikes me as noble, but it would also strike me as annoying if Mr. Meirelles were not such a skilled and subtle filmmaker, and if his cast were not so sensitive and sly.

I'll say it: The politics of The Constant Gardener are naive and implausible. But not for the reason Scott and so many others seem to think: the seemingly outrageous accusation Le Carre has leveled against the global pharmaceutical companies is banal and ordinary. (I'll outsource any further explanation of this to Marcia Angell. What's preposterous is the notion that an activist who exposes this truth-in-plain-sight is in any danger of being killed by corporate assassins. Tessa would hardly be a blip on the radar.

Le Carre and Meirelles try to tell us about a globalization tragedy through a cold war frame of covert operatives, espionage, and spies. But the real globalization tragedy isn't Bad People Treating Powerless impoverished Africans Terribly, it's the complete and utter indifference to this from the rest of the world. That's both a tragedy and a travesty, but not one that fits into a cold war frame. The domestic equivalent of this film would be have K street lobbyists assassinating intrepid reporters who discovered that they've been meeting with and perhaps even making campaign contributions to the Senator who chairs the subcommittee that's reviewing a bill of interest to one of their clients.

This makes the final act of the movie, a deeply embarrassing parade of preposterous cliches, all the harder to watch. A core conceit of the movie is that if only the British press and public knew about these ways in which poor, desperate Africans were treated as though their lives are near worthless, heads would role and Things Would Change, and bad guys would be punished. This, of course, absolves the general public and the audience for any responsibility. It's both cinematically disastrous and politically cowardly. I almost wish Meirelles didn't have such a good eye; then I might not be drawn to his next film.

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