Roland Joffe has shown himself to be somewhat obsessed with the plight of people in
horrible third-world circumstances with a series of films including the powerful The
Killing Fields (Cambodia), the picturesque but sloppy The Mission (South
America) and City of Joy, which is just out on DVD.
City of Joy starts with
our dear old friend Patrick
Swayze as doctor Max Lowe, in the midst of a disastrous operation on a little kid. In
an oddly muted slow-motion sequence Lowe freaks out and flees the hospital. We flash
forward to India, where Lowe will go into exile to search for enlightenment (or, more
likely, to get plastered and blubber about how much he's screwed up his life.)
At the same
time, we're introduced to Hasari and Kamla Pal (the affecting Om Puri and luminous
Shabana Azmi) who, having lost their family farm to debt collectors, are fleeing the
country for the urban jungle of Calcutta with their three young children. With only a
little money and no contacts they are quickly taken advantage of and are forced to live on
the street. Meanwhile, Lowe gets taken himself in a scheme that involves a pretty girl, a
bottle of booze and a serious ass kicking (the oldest trick in the book), which leads
directly to Lowe and Pal's paths crossing.
From here the film goes in a surprisingly
standard direction: Lowe uneasily offers to help an Irish (or British) aid worker (Pauline
Collins) improve the free health clinic she's running without any funding while Pal gets a
job operating a rickshaw from the local godfather. Lowe is very ambivalent about
reentering the medical field in any way but a pretty harrowing scene where he helps a
leper deliver a baby forces him to consider it. The rest of the movie involves clashes
with the fat, paranoid godfather and his angry son. The film tries to make a point about
the caste system by having the godfather talk about how Lowe doesn't understand that the
pecking order there isn't just some western-style injustice but rather is ingrained in
who the people are. Still, the "stand up for yourself" message Lowe ultimately preaches to
Pal and others is undoubtedly a silly, naive gloss on Indian culture and practically
sounds like something straight out of Swayze's Road House. (Just imagine Swayze
telling a bunch of rednecks to stand up to Ben Gazzara instead of the ragtag crew here
and you'll get the point.)
Similarly, the plot seems copped largely from The Mission. In that earlier film,
Joffe had his unlikely duo stand firm to protect their home base (the titular outpost)
from violent mobs. Here the mission is the City of Joy clinic and the struggle is pretty
much the same. Joffe does a very good job of creating the chaotic, decrepit atmosphere of
the Calcutta slums and the crushing poverty all around but there are some annoying
Hollywood touches as well, like the too-cute lepers that provide comic relief (yikes!) and
the cleansing rain that comes down at one point, accompanied by inspirational music and
everything. And it's hard to believe that in a city as densely overcrowded as this
(Calcutta's population is somewhere around 15 million) some of the characters would be
constantly running into each other. Although I guess that's a function of their staying
confined to their small areas more than anything.
Still, the film is rescued by the cast. Swayze is surprisingly good, even though the role
is a bit silly at times and some of the emotional character development is a bit
truncated. He brings the right mix of western naivete and self-involvement. When he first
arrives in his dank hotel he says he'll be staying for "uno noche," like he's a frat boy
in Tijuana for spring break.
The best performances are from Puri and Azmi. They are really
moving as the couple being tested the most. Puri has a quiet pride that makes his
subservient position as a rickshaw driver all more heartbreaking and his sincere joy in
providing for his family more profound. The way he breathes in the aroma of a tin can full
of earth from his former farm is perfect. And Azmi is a revelation in her underwritten
role. There's something really affecting about her presence. She just seems like the calm
in the midst of the storm of misery the film portrays. One notably annoying performance,
however, comes from Collins, whose brogue sticks out like a sore thumb and who never
really becomes a real person. I was shocked to see her character turn up and no matter how
many scenes she appeared in she always came off as tacked on.
The anamorphic video is fine, if a bit murky at times. Also, the colors were usually
vibrant but occasionally the print appeared dull and washed out. The transfer is
reasonably crisp if a bit grainy. What must have been a tough film to light, however,
looks quite good.
The audio was fine. Even with the mix of voices and accents (as well as constant din of
street noise) the voices were always clear. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone's score is
mostly provocative and powerful and the Dolby surround track reproduces it well.
Nothing other than skippable trailers for Death Wish, Gandhi and
Lawrence Of Arabia at the front of the disc. The Death Wish trailer, by the
way, looks unbelievably bad.
Not a perfect film at all, but Joffe's mission (no pun intended) is basically to transpose
his standard storytelling onto yet another far-flung locale. At times it works, at others
the outcome is just too predictable. Still, his best decisions were made in his casting
and the film does feature some fine performances that made it much more compelling than it
might otherwise have been.