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Differing Societies

Le Doulos


Golden Door


In Between Days


A distributor called Rialto Pictures has become a source ofdiscomfort. Rialto, founded in 1997, specializes in re-issues ofolder films, mostly foreign but also domestic, in new prints andwith new subtitles. Mafioso, Umberto D., and The Fallen Idol areonly three of the several dozen they have brought back. But to seeagain a film that one long ago admired and now dislikes is

somewhat upsetting. Oddly enough, the upset is even more acute whenone's opinion rises on a revisit.

Of course one cannot be surprised that the opinion of 1967 was notthe opinion of 2007, but it is uncomfortable to realize that theearlier opinion has been on mental file for decades. Then a grimfact looms large: absolutely every opinion of earlier works that isstored in the noggin does not truly represent what the latter-dayperson thinks.

This itchy realization applies to all arts. If someone asked me whatI think of Anna Karenina, I could respond volubly, but I would, ina sense, be fibbing. Forty years have passed since I last read thebook, and all I am now doing is recalling memories. I, the presentwriter, don't know what I think of Anna Karenina. All of us carryin our minds hundreds and hundred of opinions about art that arenot, in one degree or another, those of the persons we have become.

Naturally the problem is insoluble: one cannot revisit every work ofart in one's past every year. But when this problem is highlightedby a film that is re-issued, the reviewer has to face a cold factabout traversal through the years: the coursing of time has muchmore length than breadth. We move on and leave behind us much ofwhat is present at any one moment.

The latest from Rialto is Le Doulos, directed by Jean-PierreMelville, who adapted his screenplay from a novel by Pierre Lesou.(Doulos means hat, but in the slang of the day it signified stoolpigeon.) Rialto is fond of Melville: last year it gave us Army ofShadows, a drama about Occupied France. Le Doulos (1962) nestlesamid Melville's policier films. Those crime pictures are only partof his range, but they are so keenly original, so seductivelyconfident, that they have done as much for his luster as any of hisfilms.

The story of Le Doulos is no great shakes. It deals with a group ofParis crooks and the ultimate discovery that one of them is aninformer. The account is jostled along by several sharp surprises,but what really clutches the viewer-- and very quickly, too--is theseriousness of the film, despite its tricky plot.

These are more than a gang of criminals. Melville makes us believethat these men and their women inhabit a society, secret andenclosed and complete, that exists within society at large. Thoughthese men sometimes shoot one another, they are all members of afamily. This idea is not a Melville monopoly: other directors haveused it. But Melville seems, more persuasively than most, tocollude with us. He assumes that for 108 minutes, we will hang ourpersonal standards in the closet and slink with him through thesedark alleys. Right from the opening sequence, in which a man walkstoward us through a long tunnel--the shot hints at underworld ashabitat--we are in the hands of a director who knows precisely whathe wants and how to get it.

This assurance is the most enticing aspect of the film. The story isengaging enough, though the ending has a sniff of facile solutions.But Melville is concerned less with that story than with itsambience. It was my realization of this--the style as the workitself--that shook me when I saw Le Doulos again. When I first sawthe film, I was bothered by the story. What I once thought aboutthis picture is now Rialto-revised.

The two leading roles are played by Serge Reggiani, who was SimoneSignoret's doomed lover in Casque D'Or, and Jean-Paul Belmondo, whoat that time seemed the casual Atlas supporting French film on hisshoulders. (Belmondo had already made Breathless; the closingsequence in Le Doulos reminds us of that film.) Reggiani was aquiet actor with a resonant effect. Belmondo was a sexy amoralprince who seems to be visiting this story and is takingconsiderable part in it just because he happens to be there.

At any rate, Rialto, which has now re-issued three Melville films,has given his reputation new shine and has to a degree embarrassedme to myself, because of the opinion of this film that I have beenholding for so long. Still, I hope for more such embarrassments.

Golden Door--its title taken from the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed onthe pedestal of the Statue of Liberty--is a small film thataddresses a gigantic subject without breathing hard. Multiplepictures have dealt with European immigrants to America, some ofwhich have contrasted immigrants' past lives with the homeland, butfew deal with the transatlantic crossing in "immigrant" freighters.The best work I know on this subject is Jan Troell's The Emigrants.Golden Door, from Italy, is a lesser work, but it is brimful ofempathy. Emanuele Crialese, the writer-director, makes us feel thedeparture from Italy, the change of worlds.

Golden Door is set early in the twentieth century. It opens with twomen--a father and his grown son--climbing a steep, barren mountain,each holding a large stone in his mouth. At the top is a crosswhere the men kneel and pray. The father, around forty, begs for asign from heaven about what to do with his life. Evidently whatthey have just done--clawing up this mountain with a stone betweenthe teeth--was the price paid for the chance to pray here. They getwhat they take to be the sign: they and their family will move toAmerica.

The decision is not taken joyfully by the family. But the father, awidower, is in charge of this tiny kingdom, so his mother and histwo sons (one of whom is mute) consent. The ship in which they sailis a huge animal cage, yet with some twists of character surprise.Also on board, in steerage class with the multitude, is acultivated young Englishwoman who hovers around the central family.She soon figures in the proceedings.

The ship arrives at Ellis Island. (Which is more than one can say ofthe ship that brings the Corleone family to New York in TheGodfather: Part II-- that ship passes the Statue of Liberty goingthe wrong way.) We expect stockyard treatment by officials of thehorde of immigrants, but Crialese underscores the considerableattention that is paid to each of them.

Not many of the incidents in Golden Door are in themselves telling:they are mostly instances in a huge history. The film, at its best,reminds us that passages like these were manifold for many years.One moment in the film will linger: as the father (grittily playedby Vincenzo Amato) enters New York, he remembers himself and hisson scrabbling up that barren mountain with stones in their mouths,seeking a sign--the sign that would lead him to this Manhattan.

In Between Days is, thematically, a descendant of Golden Door: itdeals with some immigrants to this continent after more than acentury of immigration. It was directed by a Korean woman named SoYong Kim, who wrote it with her husband, who serves as producer.The story, she says, is based on her childhood experience of movingfrom South Korea to Los Angeles in the 1980s. However, her film isset in wintry Toronto in the present day, when the details of theirimmigration are long past for the people we see.

The focus is on a Korean high school girl named Aimie and her doingswith her friends, almost all Korean--hanging out, partying,experimenting sexually, singing karaoke. But the director's concern(a bit like Melville's choice) is less the story than the style inwhich it is presented. Visually it is generally dark, relievedsometimes by neon and other lights, but this is far from a somberstory. The darkness is presumably to convey the dark whorl ofstrangeness within which Aimie lives. Occasionally the screen simplyblacks out for a moment, as even stronger proof of this mood.

Once again the style is the film's theme. We see and hear a teenagegirl going through the usual moves of her set, careless andfun-seeking and irresponsible as all the others around her, yet hersecret life is set in blackness: her divorce from the world of herearly years, the culture in which she first learned to see and hearand feel.

Kim has bravely chosen to make her first picture in a way that, atthe start, could be mistaken for a gussied-up story of one morehigh school girl. Aimie is indeed only one such (convincinglypresented by Jiseeon Kim, no relation): but the mode in which thedirector sees her double being is--damn the worn word--interesting.