The great Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki has made his masterpiece. Spirited Away, which was even more popular in Japan than Titanic, is the most deeply and mysteriously satisfying animated feature to come along in ages. At a time when animated movies, at least of the computer-generated Shrek and Toy Story variety, have never been funnier or friskier, Miyazaki offers up the traditional pleasures of hand-drawn animation combined with the emotional undertow of a resounding myth or Grimm’s fairy tale. It’s about a 10-year-old girl, Chihiro, who enters into a supernatural world with her parents and then must go it alone in order to rescue them in a dreamscape peopled by deities and spirits ranging from conniving crones to – yes – a giant white radish. The fantasy logic at times rivals Lewis Carroll’s in his Alice books (a clear influence on Miyazaki). The emotional logic resembles Carroll, too – like Alice, this young girl can really think on her feet.
Miyazaki gives you almost too much to look at, yet it is never enough. The delicate wash of imagery in a sequence like the one in which a spectral train moves along tracks submerged in water gives way to colors as eye-poppingly sharp as M&Ms. Unlike even the best American animators – or just plain filmmakers, for that matter – Miyazaki doesn’t gloss over the terrors of childhood, which here yield their own disquieting beauty. He respects the deep silences of his story, as well as its cacophonies. (The soundtrack is every bit as inventive as the visuals.) Very young children are apt to be frightened by this film, but older ones will recognize in Miyazaki, as with all great fabulists, a kindred spirit.
Bloody Sunday, written and directed by Paul Greengrass, is the most visceral and cumulatively powerful account of civil war since Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. It takes place from dawn to dusk on January 30, 1972, when British soldiers, under orders to make mass arrests, shot 27 unarmed demonstrators, 13 of them fatally, as they were taking part in what was intended to be a peaceful, large-scale civil-rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland, to protest the British policy of internment without trial. None of the British soldiers involved was ever disciplined; on the contrary, there were decorations from the queen. The massacre ended any hope for a nonviolent resolution of “the troubles” and rejuvenated the IRA.
Greengrass presents a multitude of mini-dramas from all sides of the conflict. His approach is furiously egalitarian; he wants to make it clear that, in the long term, the events of Bloody Sunday were tragic for British and Irish alike. Inevitably, the film focuses on Ivan Cooper (played extraordinarily well by James Nesbitt), the middle-class Protestant manager of a shirt factory who founded the biggest Catholic political party in Northern Ireland and whose hero was Martin Luther King. Cooper led the march that day. His worst fears are confirmed the instant he realizes the bullets being fired are not rubber but lead. He begins the film as a festive, harried gladhander, the archetypal Irish pol, and ends up broken. Still alive today, he never marched again.
Shooting mostly with handheld cameras, Greengrass keeps the action so vivid that at times it’s difficult to believe you’re watching a staged re-creation. (Family members of the dead and wounded as well as ex–British soldiers from the paramilitary forces were used as extras.) The depth and range of the film’s characterizations, its comprehension of grief, carry it well beyond the standard successes of the semi-documentary format. The primitive force of this film seems to bubble up from the vast collective memory of the combatants. It’s like watching a nightmare made flesh.
The Polish writer-director Krzysztof Kieslowski, famed for The Decalogue and the “Three Colors” trilogy, died in 1996 while working with his co-writer, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, on a new trilogy inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. (No one can accuse these guys of not thinking big.) Their script Heaven, the only installment completed at Kieslowski’s death, is the basis for the new film of the same name directed by Run Lola Run’s Tom Tykwer and starring Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi. What at first might seem like a mismatch – the brooding Pole and the hot-footed German – turns out to be something of a lovefest. Tykwer embraces Kieslowski’s themes of ardor and fate and redemption with a vengeance, and gives them a propulsiveness that, at least in the early stages of the film, makes them fairly easy to digest (Run Dante Run?). He gets into the spirit of the piece, but in the end, that’s the problem: A great deal of energy is expended on metaphysical ruminations that become ever fuzzier. The film is intended as an allegory, but it works best as a jailbreak romance. In this movie, lowbrow trumps highbrow every time.
Cate Blanchett’s Philippa is an English schoolteacher working in Turin who plants a bomb in a trash can inside the office of a major drug dealer who has ruined the lives of several of her students. Her plan goes awry, and four innocent people are killed instead of the dealer. She is quickly arrested and interrogated by the local judge and carabinieri. Her translator in these interrogations is a young police officer, Filippo (Ribisi), who falls hard for her and ingeniously engineers her escape. Churchmouse-quiet and cadaverously pale, Filippo is an unlikely suitor for the firebrand Philippa, who feels great remorse for her botched bombing but still wants to get the hell out of Turin. Their romance is essentially chaste in spirit; by the end, when they have both shaved their heads, Filippo and Philippa look like twins from a galaxy far, far away.
The moral issues in Heaven are profound – and profoundly unrealized. Philippa’s dilemma is that, acting as self-appointed executioner, she killed innocent people in pursuit of the guilty. She doesn’t wish to escape her fate, and yet most of the time, she never grapples with what is supposed to be her excruciating ambivalence about guilt and innocence. This lack appears to be a fault of the script rather than a deliberate attempt to show us her psychological and spiritual evasions. Tykwer sets up a moral equation and then doesn’t do the math.
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
Directed by Paul Greengrass; starring James Nesbitt.
Directed by Tom Tykwer; starring Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi.