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.