The Village
Produced by Touchstone and Blinding Edge Pictures
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures

The Manchurian Candidate
Produced and distributed byParamount Pictures
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Screenplay by Daniel Pyne from the novel by Richard Condon
George Axelrod (1962 screenplay)

María, Full of Grace (María, llena eres de gracia)
Produced by HBO Films
Written and directed by Joshua Marston
Distributed by Fine Line Features

Idea films are ungainly creatures.  Their ambitions may be noble, but a misstep or two sends them toppling before our embarrassed eyes, as M. Night Shyamalan’s latest illustrates.

In The Village, Shyamalan has returned to the big idea that has preoccupied him in the past: the problem of evil.  His earlier films asked why pain, suffering, death, and destruction are permitted in a world that is supposed to be good.  The Village looks at this theme from the other direction.  What happens to people who try to live within a cloistered innocence?  With an excessively allegorical exposition, Shyamalan tells the tale of a late-19th-century village led by elders who have declared the surrounding forest off-limits to its residents.  The woods, they warn, are filled with creatures too horrid to name.  They are “those we do not speak of.”

Much has been made of the film’s surprise ending, but anyone familiar with the classic literary opposition of town and woods, city and jungle will see where this story is going long before its denouement.  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale “Young Goodman Brown” is a perfect instance.  Brown was a 17th-century Puritan living in a New England village surrounded by a foreboding forest.  The tension of Hawthorne’s narrative is between the sunny, orderly village and the dark, seductively tangled woods.  One evening, Brown finds he can no longer resist the adventure beckoning from the unexplored woods.  He enters their pathless dark, determined to return to the fenced safety of the town by daybreak.  What he discovers on his journey, however, makes this morally impossible.

The elders of Shyamalan’s village have decided not to make Brown’s mistake.  By erecting a cordon sanitaire between themselves and the forest, they have made their world a predictable, nearly hazard-free zone.  Their youngsters, however, are growing restless.  They have devised a game of standing at the woodland perimeter at night, deliberately risking encounters with “those we do not speak of.”  Others pick berries of the “color we do not speak of.”  That’s red, of course.  (Can you spell repression?)  Only the vivacious Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard, in a remarkable debut) can see through to the hidden truth behind the dourly proper appearances of things.  This is because she is blind.  Shyamalan’s didactic moralism is that heavy.  That his film has done as well as it has commercially is a tribute to his extraordinary visual gifts.  He has an uncanny way with the camera.  He can fill his quietest scenes with dread and then startle you with flash editing that has few cinematic precedents.  No director in the business can unnerve an audience quite so thoroughly.

As Alfred Hitchcock did, Shyamalan signs his films by giving himself walk-on cameos.  I wish he would borrow another signature strategy from the master: Hitchcock always relied on others to write his scripts.  He understood his role, and that was to invest his projects with his unique cinematic imagination.  Shyamalan should follow suit, for his literary gift is as slender as his cinematic talent is enormous.

Despite his denials, there can be no doubt that director Jonathan Demme has invested The Manchurian Candidate with a big idea: America is in danger of becoming a fascist state.  Why not admit it?  Wasn’t this Richard Condon’s theme when he first published his novel in 1959?  And didn’t it compel John Frankenheimer to bring it to the screen in 1962?  Does Demme fear being accused of electioneering in this presidential year?

Condon’s narrative concerns an assassination plot designed to install a useful stooge in the White House.  To bring off this clandestine coup, Raymond Shaw, a wealthy young lieutenant in the Korean War, is turned into a lethal automaton by Russian and Chinese scientists after his Korean guide leads his patrol into an ambush.  What gave the novel its special kick was that the communists turn out to be in league with American right-wing opportunists—Shaw’s mother chief among them—bent on wresting control of America for themselves.  Condon’s point was that, wittingly or not, the anticommunist right was a natural ally of the communist left.  His premise certainly had merit.  The hysterical fear-mongering engaged in by Joseph McCarthy and various members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities had succeeded in making anticommunism a term of derision by the end of the 50’s.  Consequently, thoughtful anticommunist voices on both the left and the right were all but silenced until the 80’s, their arguments gutted of credibility before they were given a hearing. 

Condon’s novel and Frankenheimer’s film both had the bad good fortune to have been imitated by real events.  John F. Kennedy would be assassinated in 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald, a man who seemed quite possibly a programmed catspaw.  The apparent similarities between fact and fiction have bestowed on the novel and its adaptation a mystique that has rendered them virtually critic-proof.  In truth, neither is as remarkable as some would have us believe.  Condon was a smart-aleck who thought himself a satirist.  He enjoyed sneering at his subjects rather than dramatically examining them.  Frankenheimer’s adaptation is an ungainly balance of surreal satire and conventional espionage thriller.  Laurence Harvey gives an adequate performance as Shaw, a man doubly deformed, first by his Oedipal relationship with his monstrous mother and then by the brainwashing Chinese.  Playing Shaw’s captain, Ben Marco, Frank Sinatra seems to have stopped off at the set now and then on his lounge rounds.  Only Angela Lansbury and James Gregory truly shine.  Lansbury makes a formidably hard-eyed matron capable of sacrificing her son to her political ambitions.  Gregory is her husband, the bibulous senator who loudly declares that there are exactly 57 card-carrying communists in the Department of Defense, using a number his wife steals from a Heinz Ketchup label.  (A prescient reference to Teresa Heinz’s political ambitions?)

To update this material, Demme has made Shaw (Liev Schreiber) and Marco (Denzel Washington) veterans of the Gulf War, in which they were captured not by the commies but by mercenaries deployed by a multinational corporation called Manchurian Global.  As in the original, they are brainwashed but, this time, with the aid of computer-chip implants.  They are made to believe they survived an enemy attack thanks to Shaw’s nearly single-handed valor.  Conniving in the plot, his senator mom (Meryl Streep) parlays his supposed heroism into a successful political career.  She rationalizes her complicity with her son’s conditioners by telling herself that they have made him “even more like himself,” by which she means more like herself, an ambition-driven harpy willing to maim and murder for power.

The similarities between Haliburton and Manchurian Global are made clear in the fictitious corporation’s slogans: “We must secure tomorrow today,” a mission to be pursued with “compassionate vigilance.”  (How’s that for blurring the line between fact and fiction?)

As entertainment, Demme’s not-so-stealth attack on Bush and company is fleet, witty, and moderately suspenseful.  And it is a pleasure to see Streep chew the scenery, literally.  At one point, she insinuatingly crunches a pair of ice cubes between her malevolent molars.

Joshua Marston’s big idea in Maria, Full of Grace is announced in the film’s ad campaign, which displays his eponymous heroine receiving what seems, at first, to be a Communion Host.  Actually, it is an ironically doctored still from the film showing us Maria, a working-class Colombian girl, becoming a mule, drug slang for a person desperate enough to swallow latex pellets filled with narcotics and bring them into the United States.  Marston wants us to know that the poor of the Third World are desperate for earthly salvation and willing to go to sordid extremes to achieve it—not exactly news, but he dramatizes his point with compelling urgency.

At 17, Maria lives in a small village outside Bogota with her mother, sister, and her sister’s infant, all of whom she supports on the meager salary she makes in the local floral industry.  To add to her woes, she has become pregnant, compliments of a boyfriend she neither loves nor respects.  Male support is nowhere to be found in her dispirited community.  Creeping industrialization has undermined its traditional rural culture and family structure.

With her thwarted yearnings, Maria makes a perfect mark for Colombia’s drug criminals.  Promised $100 per heroin pellet, she swallows 62 and flies to New York City.  Once in America, however, things go awry.  One of the other mules she is traveling with dies when the pellets that she is carrying burst inside her.  The American thugs who are keeping the girls in a Newark motel until they pass the merchandise have no compunction about cutting the young woman open to get their goods.  While they are disposing of the body, Maria escapes and makes her way to Jackson Heights, a Queens, New York, district known as Little Colombia for its concentration of immigrants, legal and illegal, from that bedeviled land.  Here, she must face the uncomfortable consequences of her decisions.

There is much to admire in Marston’s film, although, here and there, he has compromised its authenticity to ideological commitments that have more to do with his being an American than with the truth of Colombian peasant life.  He has directed his amateur actress, Catalina Sandino Moreno, to play Maria as though she were a resourceful feminist heroine.  This seems improbable.  Women who go into muling are far more likely to be pathetically ignorant and easily controlled.  Moreno, however, displays the kind of spunk and grit that have become de rigueur for American film heroines.  In an uneducated girl from a dirt-poor South American village, such attributes seem rather fanciful.

Marston is a graduate of New York University’s film school, where he no doubt studied Italian neorealism.  His film gives every indication that he has striven to make another Bicycle Thief.  Like that film’s director, Vittorio DeSica, Marston has assembled a cast of nonprofessionals and shot his film on locations in natural light.  Also like DeSica, he has managed to press realistic detail into symbolic service—the rose factory in which Maria works, for instance.  While a real place of employment, it also serves as a powerful metaphor of class differences.  Maria earns her paltry pay dethorning rose stems so wealthy customers can avoid one more of the many inconveniences so predictably visited upon the lower orders.  Another scene suggests Maria’s aspirations.  After some nuzzling alongside the wall of a crumbling warehouse, her young boyfriend suggests that they go to her house to conclude their intimacies horizontally.  In answer, she gazes upward at the building’s roof.  That is where she wants to go.  With the aid of the broken brickwork and convenient window sills, she scales the wall and beckons him to follow.  He does not want to make the effort, however.  In neorealist fashion, Maria’s climb signals her aspiration to something loftier than her boyfriend has ever entertained.  This raises a question: Is Maria better off for climbing?  Marston keeps properly mum on the issue, but we certainly should raise it.