The Pool (Vitagraph Films)

August Evening (Maya Releasing)

Place, the place where a story is set, can figure powerfully in our encounter with a film--perhaps even more in our memory of it. Think of what Manhattan did for some of Sidney Lumet's films, or Arizona for some of John Ford's, or that Swedish island for some of Ingmar Bergman's. Surely the overwhelming example is what the desert did for David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia.

The Pool by Chris Smith raises the subject again, in an unusual way. Smith is an American who has made several features and who, a few years ago, worked with friends on a film in India. The experience kindled a hope to make a picture of his own there one day: thus, reversing matters, he chose his setting before he found his film. At last it came, and he went back--to the city that had especially taken him, Panjim in Goa.

Goa, on the west coast, is the smallest Indian state and has a unique history. Most of India, during the imperial era, was of course British, but for four and a half centuries Goa was a Portuguese colony. In 1961 the presence of a foreign entity in an otherwise liberated India was ended by an Indian takeover. For Smith, the combination of Portuguese vestiges with Goa today was a magnet. He had read a story by Randy Russell--set in America!--which seemed to him apt for transfer, so with Russell he wrote the screenplay, relocating it to Goa, then directed it and did the cinematography himself. The film unfolds small surprises as it goes; but the directing and camera work are fine from the start.

The center of the story is Venkatesh, an eighteen-year-old handyman-porter in a small hotel in Panjim who picks up extra cash from sidewalk peddling. His close pal is an eleven-year-old named Jhangir who comes from the same small town as Venkatesh; he works in a restaurant and helps out with his friend's peddling. Not far away is a luxe district where there is an estate with a large house and a large swimming pool. The place is empty. Whenever he can, Venkatesh climbs a mango tree outside the estate and gazes at the pool. He fantasizes about swimming in it, about living there, and is teased about his dreaming by Jhangir; still, he clings to his vision of a life not merely richer but somehow superior.

One day when he climbs the tree, he sees a mature man--obviously not a laborer--doing some gardening and a young girl reading by the pool. The man is the owner, Venkatesh rightly infers, who must be wealthy, because he doesn't actually live here: it's a spare residence. One day the youth follows the girl to a park and almost embarrassedly speaks to her. She, fairly cordial, is Ayesha, daughter of the older man, Nana. Soon Venkatesh also manages to approach Nana in a plant nursery and, by offering to help him, ingratiates himself. In a short while he is working for Nana part-time and becomes intimate enough to ask the older man why he keeps this estate though he lives in Bombay. Nana tells him that he won't sell the place because his son was drowned in the pool.

We might expect that the story has been built so that this lower-class youth can take the place of Nana's drowned son. (And, just possibly, there could be a future with Ayesha.) But Smith refuses the pattern. Venkatesh is not a movie hero. He is gaunt, graceless, illiterate. In time, he even tells of a semi-crazed six months in his past. Smith characterizes him as more or less the opposite of a gleaming social aspirant.

Nana, too, behaves in a counter-movie way. He is not, as we might expect, put off by the younger man's person or condition, and apparently he doesn't believe the craziness story. (Indeed, it may be only the youth's attempt to make himself interesting.) He urges Venkatesh to get an education and eventually offers him a gardening job with him in Bombay where he can also go to school.

Meanwhile, the youth and his younger pal have been hanging out with Ayesha. Like the heroine of a novel she is reading, she is a "messed-up" girl, affectless, somewhat inert--a condition not available to people of Venkatesh's class. When the three of them visit an old Portuguese fortress, the disparities between the two working-class kids and the upper-class girl seem heightened.

Venkatesh's decision about Nana's offer is delayed by a return to his hometown to see his mother and sisters. (In the family's attitude toward him, there is no hint that he is a recovered mental invalid.) When he returns to Panjim, he makes his decision about the job offer. Then he makes another decision. The end, involving Jhangir, brings still another decision.

Venkatesh is played by Venkatesh Chavan, Jhangir by Jhangir Badshah. Both are new actors who have been ingeniously directed by Smith. (Consider two facts: the dialogue is in Hindi, in which Smith is not fluent, and Hindi is not the young actors' native language. Out of this linguistic tangle come two seamless performances.) Smith obviously had an easier time with Nana Patekar, who is an eminence in Indian film and who has a commanding ease. Through Smith's cast and around them, his extensive talents shine.

So we have a film that is a kind of counter-film, which sets expectations in an environment that supports unexpected results. This is not to say that the streets and shops and parks and historical relics in Panjim shape the story: but the place and the society seem especially right for a story shorn of cinematic upholstery. It will be difficult to remember this film without remembering Goa. The Pool maintains that it is possible, even for a commonplace youth, to have a vision and to have the outcome leave him in some ways stronger. Yes, something like it could have happened in Brooklyn or Boise: but Goa is where, Smith persuades us, it had to happen.

August Evening is otherwise placed. Physically, the setting is Texas--generally a verdant Texas, not longhorn country. The subject is a family of Mexicans: a mature father and mother, and grown children. (Most of the dialogue is in Spanish.) Intrinsically, however, the picture does more than deal with the family: it is set in the family, as The Pool was set in Goa. Though the picture travels around, it seems to take place in a special country: all the family members seem to have almost fierce citizenship in a country of their own. (That country has oddities and contradictions, as do all countries.)

Jaime, the patriarch, is about sixty. He works on a chicken farm. With him and his wife, Maria, lives Lupe, their widowed daughter-in-law. Maria dies early in the story: Jaime and Lupe, dear to each other, continue to live together. Jaime's job fizzles, and this odd pair--the graying man and his son's widow--have to move along as he looks for a job. Sometimes they live with one or another of Jaime's two other children, and there are family--"territorial"--frictions. Though these burn out, Jaime and Lupe move on, but are never out of touch with his children. He has trouble finding work. Sometimes he is reduced to hanging out on a street corner with other men looking for a day's job. Lupe does some work in restaurants and teaches guitar to children.

Jaime, as he has done from the start, urges Lupe to remarry. She demurs. She simply is not keen on the idea of a new marriage, no matter how earnestly Jaime and others in the family encourage her. She feels safe in several ways with Jaime: also, he is close in her mind to her lost husband. At last a young butcher, Luis (a touch too evidently Mr. Right), comes along. He falls in love with Lupe, and matters progress--eventually--for Lupe and Luis and Jaime.

The details of the story are less engaging than the texture of the picture. Chris Eska, the debutant director, is clearly familiar with the film world's past. Like Mizoguchi and Antonioni, among many others, he enlists the environment of his film in his drama. For Eska, this is not a revel in landscape; although the cinematography by Yasu Tanida is gorgeous, it is a belief in physicality. Instances: the very last shots in the picture are of a kitchen, a light bulb, a roof. The imprint of these banal components of the day seems to suggest a commitment to the burden and privilege of existence, of just getting along in the world as it is. In an oblique way, this view helps the true setting of the picture--family ties and tugs. The characters as individuals and as members of the family, in all their flares of feeling, are constantly entailed with dailiness.

Two themes dominate. First, the Jaime-Lupe relationship, which is lovely, a fatherdaughter linkage that was created by them, not ordained in blood. Second, a family's need to deal with an aging parent, a common question couched here in affection and quandary. (Hence the title.) Both themes flow along, though the pace of the film is patient. We are held because, for two hours, we become members. With the same kitchens and light bulbs, we join this small nation.

Eska, who wrote and edited his film, appears to be at the beginning of a good career. (Note: he is the second extraordinary young American director to appear in a month, after Courtney Hunt of Frozen River.) He gets a touching performance from Veronica Loren as Lupe. But, as Smith did with the youngsters in The Pool, Eska assists a semi-mysterious marvel. Pedro Castaneda, who plays Jaime, is not an actor, yet he is sturdy, true, screen-filling. This paradox of a non-actor's acting, familiar since the neo-realist days in Italy--the leading man of De Sica's The Bicycle Thief was not an actor--occurs when an acute director sees in a non-actor some qualities that he can help the camera to find. Notably, this phenomenon is one of the ways in which film has touched ideas about the very making of art.

Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic. 

 
Subscribe to The New Republic for only $29.97 a year--75% off cover price!

By Stanley Kauffmann