Nowhere in Africa
Over the last half-century, the Holocaust has provided a seemingly bottomless supply of material for the movies. Unfortunately, the Nazis had more nefarious motives and cinephiles would gladly return such landmark films as Judgment at Nuremberg, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Enemies: A Love Story, The Sorrow and the Pity and The Pianist if the actual events of history could be reversed.

But the Holocaust did happen and the movies keep on coming. The next offering is Nowhere in Africa, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film earlier this spring and comes from, of all places, Germany. However, director Caroline Link’s film has more in common with Out of Africa or the Hemingway safari tale “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” than with the great Holocaust dramas.

The story, based on Stefanie Zweig’s autobiographical novel, is simple enough: A young secular Jewish family flees Germany just ahead of Kristallnacht in 1938 and settles into a life of dirt farming in Kenya. There are a few brief scenes of Jewish bourgeois life in Nazi Germany at the outset, but most of the film is set thousands of miles away in a parched region of Kenya where Walter Redlich, an upwardly mobile, Heinrich Heine-quoting lawyer, has landed a humble position tending an Englishman’s cattle.

Having escaped one death-trap, the Redlich family faces another: keeping their clan together in the face of their agricultural ignorance, and the increasingly strained relationship between Walter and Jellet, his pampered wife. Things get off to a bad start when Jellet ignores her husband’s directive to abandon their wedding china and packs it anyway. Humiliated by her new status as an impoverished homesteader surrounded by blacks who don’t speak German, Jellet retaliates by withholding sex from her husband.

So the film becomes the tale of the comeuppance of a spoiled woman, the simultaneous emasculation and reinvigoration of her husband and a rather uninspired coming-of-age of their wide-eyed daughter Regina (who is the fictional stand-in for the book’s author). As in Hemingway’s “Macomber,” Walter’s loss of conjugal privileges is a metaphor for the inability of middle-class whiteys to survive outside of their natural habitats. That is, when the going gets rough, the woman goes looking for a real man who can put meat on the table–as Walter quite literally can not. Jellet’s complaints about the family’s diet of eggs and corn meal grow increasingly strident, so poor Walter, desperate to regain his wife’s favor, grabs a gun one morning and shoots an antelope. Of course he makes a botch of it, first gut-shooting the beast and then asking for assistance in finishing it off. And all in humiliating view of his wife.

While Walter stews impotently, Jellet makes herself more useful to the family’s survival by dispensing strategic sexual favors to an English soldier. Later on, she seems to have an off-screen dalliance with an older Jewish man, a longtime resident of Kenya. But viewers looking for clues to Jellet’s motives–is she a faithless wench, a brave pragmatist or a sexual martyr?–will have to consult sources other than this film for answers. Worse, Jellet is played by an actress who’s all wrong for the part. Juliane Kohler, who some viewers might remember from Aimee and Jaguar, a lesbian Holocaust film from 1999, is too pallid, refined and pleasant-looking to be convincing as a petulant and sexually restless princess. The part calls for an inscrutable and chilly beauty, a contemporary German equivalent of Ingrid Bergman or Catherine Deneuve. Instead, what we get is a cross between Diane Keaton and Andie McDowell, only half as dangerous.

The film’s other major relationship is between daughter Regina, who occasionally provides uninformative and unnecessary voiceovers, and Owuor, the family’s faithful black cook. Too young to comprehend her family’s plight, young Regina naturally enjoys her childhood, which she spends with local native kids when she isn’t in the care of Owuor. And Owuor, for his part, never seems to tire of teaching her about local religious customs. (We’re informed that he has three wives and six children. If he misses them, he does not say.) Unfailingly polite, dignified and always smiling, this Kenyan Uncle Remus even crosses half the country late in the film, so that he might continue cooking for this family, who have no visible means of paying him. Although Jellet spends long stretches alone on the ranch with this handsome fellow, he seems to be the one man in Kenya with whom she doesn’t sleep.

Despite the risible dullness of much of the film, the potential power of a central theme can’t be denied: how state oppression–tyranny really–can upset not only social and political power relationships, but sexual ones as well. And frankly, the film suggests that women really love men in uniforms; the husband’s rehabilitation in his wife’s eyes begins when he enlists in the English army. Not so surprisingly, he regains his wife’s affections on the exact same day of Germany’s surrender.

But such potentially provocative themes get lost in the film’s sloppy execution. The script was adapted by the director Link herself, and she appears to have done this by flagging all her favorite images and conversational exchanges in the book, then making her film lurch from one moment to the next without any larger narrative end zone in sight. One representative non-sequitur occurs late in the film when Regina, now in her early teens, confronts her mother about her infidelities; Jellet responds with a slap. It’s a conventional scene, but done well enough. But, the very next scene shows the two women laughing gaily and trying on clothes together. Huh?

Confrontation, catharsis and reconciliation, in thirty easy seconds. Maybe this was possible somewhere in Africa, but nowhere was it so in Europe.

Raising Victor Vargas
Peter Sollett’s Raising Victor Vargas got a rousing reception at Sundance in January. There’s no reason to think that it won’t play well here, but this film is so lightweight, so innocent, that it probably can’t bear the burden of excessive hype. There are no tricks or twists here: The film is as simple and earnest as it seems, with a striking cast of amateur actors.

Raising Victor Vargas concerns a few days in the lives of Dominican teenagers in New York’s Lower East Side. The titular character (the charismatic Victor Rasuk) is a good-looking ‘hood dandy, with copper skin and oodles of brash, unearned self-confidence. Victor lives with his grandmother, a lookalike kid brother and a plumpish, truculent sister. The story is merely a playa’s progress, the tale of the romantic education of a cocky teenage Casanova who falls seriously and sweetly in love for the first time. The object of his affection is a neighborhood hottie named Judy (Judy Marte). But for her, beauty is a burden as she spends much of her time fending off the advances of neighborhood oafs. As it turns out, Judy isn’t quite as hard-edged as she looks and when confronted with a suitor like Victor who uses humor and charm, she’s intrigued.

Perhaps the simplest and sweetest aspect of the film is its counterintuitive innocence. In so many contemporary films, teenagers are presented as preternatural adults, complete with credit cards, cell phones and advanced sexual techniques. In the world of Victor Vargas, teenagers are the romantic fumblers that they really should be. In addition, the production design enhances the nostalgic, halcyon vibe. Though the film is set in the present, a rotary telephone is an important prop, and there’s a charming scene with alleyway chickens. There’s none of the de rigueur hip hop pulsating through the soundtrack; rather, the film features the sounds of the street, the local pool, the community garden. It’s a naturalistic triumph that’s not dissimilar from the retro interests of David Gordon Green, the director of All the Real Girls. The comparison with Green’s work isn’t arbitrary: Victor Vargas was shot on 16mm by Green’s collaborator Tim Orr, who did such marvelous work on All the Real Girls and George Washington. Here, Orr bathes the actors in warm, summery tones, rendering the scenes with an earthy, 1970s vibe.

ChaosAlso opening this weekend is an obscure French comedy-drama called Chaos. Shot on digital video in accordance with the spirit–if not the letter–of the Dogme 95 movement, this film takes some getting used to. It looks flat-out ugly and the camera work is distractingly bad. It doesn’t help that the opening scene seems like an inept knock-off of Godard’s Weekend. But viewers who stick with Chaos, which was written and directed by Coline Serreau, will be amply rewarded with an improbably funny, tragic and emotionally riveting melodrama.

In the aforementioned opening scene, we meet Helene and Paul, a fairly unpleasant professional couple who are driving to a social engagement one evening in Paris. Appearing out of nowhere, a screaming, terrified prostitute begs for help, banging on their car. But Helene and Paul just look at her indifferently as her pursuers catch up with her and proceed to beat her to a bloody pulp. They then drive off without as much as a guilty backward glance.

Miraculously, the woman, an Algerian immigrant named Malika, survives the attack, though just barely: She’s comatose. A conscience-stricken Helene locates her in a hospital, abandons her family and devotes herself to the full-time care of this poor woman.

What follows is an audacious and often spectacularly successful melange of social drama, women’s picture, physical comedy, political diatribe, sex farce, con artistry and terrible tragedy. There are echoes of the bourgeoisie-baiting of Godard (not only Weekend, but My Life to Live) and the outlandish femme-fetishization of Almodvar (oddly enough, the comatose Malika resembles Rosario Flores, the similarly ensconced star of Almodvar’s recent Talk to Her). There’s even a final scene that recalls the set-pieces of De Palma films like Femme Fatale.

In its representation of the (literal) colliding of two parallel universes, Chaos does as good a job as any film in exploring the mysteries of global connections and the hidden ways in which all humans are mutually dependent on each other. As such, Chaos (which, remember, is a very shabby, unimpressive-looking film) is probably the best treatment of the modern global economy and its increasingly displaced population since Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, released last year. EndBlock