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Wealth and Woes

Savage Grace (IFC)

Sangre de Mi Sangre (IFC)

The Battle for Haditha (DreamMachine)

Rich people are the center of Savage Grace. This is not only a fact, it is the mode of the film's being. From first moment to last, the film breathes the attar of richesse. The rooms designed by Victor Molero, the costumes by Gabriela Salaverri, the lapping of them by Juanmi Azpiroz's camera--all these confirm that we are leagues above any pleasure-limiting care.

This is not a historical film where extravagance is expected: Savage Grace begins in New York in 1946 and continues through a couple of decades. Nor is it like such wealth-weighted films as The Shooting Party and The Remains of the Day. In those pictures, which are both set in England, money was almost religiously dedicated to the sustaining of class. Savage Grace deals with the grandson of a man who made millions in business, and with the grandson's wife and child, all of whom live for easy gratification. Grandpa once said: "One of the uses of money is that it allows us not to live with the consequences of our mistakes." This epigram wilts eventually, but it serves as something like a motto for much of the picture.

The story, we are told, is true. Howard A. Rodman's screenplay is based on a book of the same title by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson about Brooks Baekeland, his wife Barbara, and their son Tony. All of them loll in the midst of the fortune that Brooks's grandfather amassed from the invention of Bakelite plastics. The tale begins with Barbara's cosseting her infant son, and it ends with a drastic reversal. (There is much narration throughout, spoken by the latter-day Tony even when he is an infant on screen.)

The Baekelands spend most of their time abroad--Majorca, Paris, and London are three chief settings--and in those places they do little more than please themselves. Large parties undulate past, as do women who attract Brooks; Barbara has her own diversions. As Tony grows, he becomes attracted to both girls and boys, and the story moves toward complications when Barbara sleeps with her teenage son's male lover. Not long after, these three sleep together. Some time later, mother and son have sex of their own, at her instigation and with her expertise.

These and the numerous other sex episodes do not exemplify any brave liberating credo: they are simply immediate responses to impulse. Other subjects occur, including a bit of painting by Barbara, but most of the picture is like a stream that bears those episodes past us. The ending, which is attributed to Tony's mental illness, is not seen as such: it is unpredicted. Given Tony's general behavior all along, that ending is just another kind of instant gratification.

Rodman's dialogue is like good costume jewelry: don't look too closely and it's impressive. The director, Tom Kalin, best known for a picture called Swoon, made fifteen years ago, unrolls his film before us like a marvelous fabric, sumptuous and seductive even in the non-sex scenes. What is clear from the first moment is that Kalin intends the film seriously, not scandalously. He is interested in the people who do these things, rather than the actions alone. (More: he lusciously savors the places in which they happen.) And he has cast the principal roles with splendid actors who invest the picture with depth.

The young English actor Eddie Redmayne, as the late teenage Tony (there are, briefly, two younger Tonys), has lagoons of quiet and contempt in him that reflect interesting contradictions. As his father, Stephen Dillane, also English, is resourceful, wryly observant, able to surround himself almost visibly with things that he doesn't say. But the pinnacle is Julianne Moore. Those who have seen her Yelena in Andre Gregory's production of Uncle Vanya, as filmed by Louis Malle, know that, whatever role Moore undertook in the course of a varied film career, a marvelous actress was moving through, endowed with electric insight and admirable technique. Her triumph here is in holding our concern for this often foul-mouthed, graceful, but blatant hedonist. This amounts to a triumph over the screenplay: virtually everything she says and does could in itself estrange her from us. It is Moore who convinces not of hidden worth, but of some secret entrapment which she no longer struggles against but enjoys.

But unfortunately for all its assets, especially Moore, Savage Grace leaves us somewhat empty-handed. What is it for? It follows the facts of these lives, thus it leaves us even more convinced of the difference between life and art. The facts of this family are life: a film merely about those facts is not art, is not enough. Kalin has said that he saw a tragedy in the story: this may be the motor that got him going, but inevitable disaster is not in itself tragedy. At its gravest, Savage Grace is a parable about what happens to some people when they get a lot of money and don't know what to do with it except spend it idly. But the film is so excellently made in every way that we expect more from it than their dissolution.

Sangre de Mi Sangre (Blood of My Blood)--the title is officially double--is a first film, written and directed by Christopher Zalla, who graduated only a few years ago from Columbia University's film school. In every technical aspect, which in film always includes artistic choice, Zalla's film is exceptional. The lighting, the editing, the cinematography are accomplished. Sangre joins those other recent American films, early in their makers' careers, that are very competently made. Unlike most of those others, however, we can wish that Columbia had done a little more for Zalla in the art of writing.

The subject is Mexican immigrants in New York, and most of the cast are Mexican. At the start, Pedro, a teenager, is at the Mexican border fleeing people who want to kill him. (We never learn why.) He scales a wall into the United States, is soon apprehended, and is loaded into a truck full of other illegal immigrants that proceeds to New York. (It is not a border patrol truck. We never learn whose truck it is or why it makes this trip. Who paid for it?) During the trip Pedro becomes friendly with Juan, who is about his age, and tells him that he hopes to find his father in New York, whom he has never met. Pedro has a letter from his deceased mother to his father, a locket that she sent, and a hint that the father owns a restaurant and has money. When the truck arrives, Pedro awakes from a long sleep to find out that Juan has stolen his letter and belongings and is gone.

The body of the film consists of two strands. Juan, posing as Pedro, finds the father, Diego, and ingratiates himself. (Diego doesn't own a restaurant. He is a dishwasher who moonlights as, of all things, a maker of artificial flowers. ) The real Pedro, bereft of letter and locket, has a series of adventures with a druggie hustler. One can read into this double plot the theme of identity, a search for it, but this is to aggrandize what is only a story gimmick. The false Pedro is more interesting than the real one because of his experiences with Diego: for the real Pedro, Zalla has simply invented some scenes with the hustler to fill out the film's shape.

However, plot flaws and all, we can be glad that the picture was made--like Savage Grace at the other end of the economic scale--because of its acting. Pedro and Juan (Jorge Adrian Espindola and Armando Hernandez), both lively and appealing, completely fill their bills. Paola Mendoza, as the waspish hustler, is excellent. She presents a woman who lives in the lowest depths, is defiant about it, and slithers her sharp way moment by moment: an incisive performance. And Jesus Ochoa, the veteran actor who plays Diego, makes us jealous of Mexico. How easily powerful he is, how complex without pretense. In effect, not in looks, he makes us think of Robert Duvall. Even though we have Duvall, we ought to have had more of Ochoa.

Films about the Iraq war continue to come and, I hope, will keep coming. Among the most recent, The Battle for Haditha is especially notable. It was made by the British documentarian Nick Broomfield, but it is not a documentary: it is a factual re-enactment. (The current tag is "docudrama.") It recreates an action by U.S. Marines that took place in the town of Haditha. On November 19, 2005, a roadside bomb hit an armored vehicle loaded with Marines and killed an officer. This bombing followed attacks in previous days in which Marines were ambushed, tortured, and killed. Enraged, a squad under a staff sergeant went through some buildings near the road and killed twenty-four civilians, including some children. These killings are at present the subject of military trials.

All the main Marine roles in this re-enactment are performed by ex-Marines, though none of them was involved in the real thing. Broomfield, who shot his film in Jordan, lays both sides before us. We see two Iraqi insurgents earlier in the day preparing to do their bombing, supported by members of a terrorist group, whom the insurgents privately think are crazy. We see the Marines at their base earlier in the day, receiving their patrol orders and setting out. We see the explosion, the death of the officer; we see the explosion of anger and the fusillading rampage, justified for the Marines at the moment by the conviction that they are punishing murderers. In fact the local residents were frightened when they saw the bomb being planted. After the explosion we see the two bombers fleeing, one of them returning to his home and hugging his children.

Besides intensifying our reaction to the incident, already graven in us by the first news and subsequent stories, we must wonder about the Marine actors in the film. Several critics have compared this picture to The Battle of Algiers, which seems to me off base. The Algerians in that film were commemorating events of which they were proud; can this be true of these Marines? What were these men thinking while they played their roles? Weren't they, simply by appearing in the picture, expressing their view of the matter?

Still, it would be masochistically possessive to regard this film as an instance of typical American brutality. It is only a sample of the whole world that we live in. The killing of civilians by the military is not an American monopoly; Iraq is not the sole venue. The battle is not only in Haditha. Look at tomorrow's newspaper.