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A Different Kind of Thriller

posterThis is easily the best film I’ve seen this year. It’s a conspiracy thriller that breaks all the rules: there are no long chase scenes, no fights, no James Bond-esque heroics, no dramatic explosions, no wrenching suspense, and no pat happy ending. But it works, and works brilliantly.

Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) weaves languidly in and out of linear story-telling with stream-of-consciousness and flashbacks used in a unhurried, dreamlike way. It takes a little time for it to work, but the effect is that rather than just seeing the love that Justin and Tessa Quayle have for each other, we feel it, in meandering sequences of snapshots, home videos, and flashbacks lovingly photographed.

Interspersed in this intimate tangle of images and experiences, is the unfolding mystery: Justin (Ralph Fiennes), an experienced, middle-level British diplomat in Africa, is trying to solve the mystery of the murder of his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), whose activism on behalf of Africa’s poor has begun to make many enemies. Even worse, he began doubting her faithfulness to him shortly before she was killed.

Who’s to blame—the drug companies doing often-lethal tests on uninformed patients? The governments of Kenya and the UK? Arnold Bluhm, the African doctor with whom Tessa had been spending so much time alone?

Filmed through the Heart

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Love, grief, and a fierce need to know the truth, no matter what it is, nor how painful it may be, fuel Justin’s dangerous investigation. We experience the story through the torment of his soul, and this immediacy makes The Constant Gardener riveting while it shuns all the standard tricks of the trade. As a love story concerned with a man doubting his spouse’s faithfulness, Gardener achieves what Eyes Wide Shut failed to, due to Kubrick’s inability to make us participate in the conflicts of the heart.

This movie is magnificently beautiful! Meirelles has a wonderful sense of beauty and shows it to us in the most original and tender ways, from admiring the beauty of the nude pregnant figure, to capturing flocks of white birds wheeling above their indigo shadows on the surface of a still lake. His love of humanity shines through the lens; even in the squalor of a hell-hole where kids play alongside sewage-filled ditches, Meirelles captures the beauty of the incorruptible imago Dei / Buddha-nature shining through their smiles.

However, I had initially planned to criticize Meirelles’ for his over-use of the hand-held camera. He makes the events literally spin around us, a technique I found quite distracting upon viewing. Strangely, though, that flaw dissolves after the movie is over. What remains is the ineffable hope, sorrow, and beauty of Africa, of love, and of life.

To One of the Least of These…

Gardener boldly advances the tradition of social-justice film. Although most of its particulars (based on the John LeCarré novel of the same name) are fictitious, the general outlines of the exploitation of the Third World by the First World are all too true.

Gardener gives us a look at an Africa quite different from the quaint one of picturesque villages that National Geographic persists in promoting. This is an Africa of shantytowns, rusting tin roofs, and omnipresent disease; of corruption beyond comprehension, and human suffering of an extent that is painful to even think about. It’s an Africa where the circles of political influence congratulate each other with martinis in lavish restaurants, and where the knots of de facto power determine the law of the moment by the barrel of an AK-47. It’s an Africa where magnificent scenic wonder contrasts with the horrific darkness of the ego-centered heart. Most of all, it’s an Africa that challenges us to respond.

“‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?’ Then he will answer,

‘I tell you solemnly, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.’

Movie stills © 2005 Universal Studios.