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Coming along rather early in the traditiion of ecological fables from the Third World, MGM's Where the River Runs Black is a beautifully filmed but commercially difficult to classify movie. The tale of a feral orphan from the upper reaches of the Amazon, it's an odd brew of fantasy and realism: elements that one thinks would be softened for young audiences are left in their raw state. The film earned a PG rating but early scenes will probably be considered too strong for small children.
We've all seen what kind of mush can result when well-intentioned filmmakers make a family film concerned with ecological values. The despoilers of the environment are greedy, ruthless villains, yet are relatively easily checked by cheery kids that oppose their ugly landfill / development / destructive industry. The children are either white-bread Hansels & Gretels or an appealing ethnic mix with a minority member playing comedy relief. The kids are always the first to relate to nature, usually by bonding with some impressive animal threatened by the encroachment of man. The sterling example of these youngsters shows the way for the parents / authority figures / community to oppose the nasty bad guys. This basic framework frequently appears in mutated Lassie stories like Free Willy. The preaching is what drags the films down. Great pictures like The Black Stallion foster respect for nature without overloading the text with don 'n' don't messages.
Where the River Runs Black can boast exotic Brazilian settings that in 1986 hadn't been seen too often on American screens. Director Christopher Cain (of the excellent The Stone Boy) filmed in Rio and in the Amazon near Belém. The somewhat fantastic story is based in the reality of an ecological disaster: the opening of the Amazon basin to exploitation is destroying the entire self-contained wild world of the rain forest.
Catholic Father O'Reilly (Charles Durning) pays an infrequent visit to Father Mahoney (Peter Horton), who runs a tiny outpost mission far upriver. Disappointed that his plans for a clinic and school are turned down -- O'Reilly needs what meager funds he has for work in the city -- Mahoney paddles further upriver to "where the water runs black". There he finds the hauntingly beautiful Eagle Woman (DIvana Brandão), a vision of loveliness, living in a grotto guarded by a pair of remarkable freshwater porpoises. Ten years later, both Mahoney and the Eagle Woman are long gone, but O'Reilly discovers that they had a child, who he names Lazaro (Alessandro Rabelo). The boy is taken to a Catholic orphanage in the city, where he barely learns to fit in despite being coached by a city orphan, Segundo (Ajay Naidu). O'Reilly and the sweet sister Ana (Dana Delaney) are pleased when Lazaro shows signs of civilizing by learning his prayers. But then the politician and businessman Orlando Santos (Castulo Guerra) visits the orphanage. Lazaro immediately recognizes him as the murderer of his mother six years before. With the more streetwise Segundo in tow, Lazaro escapes into the streets and tracks the venal candidate Santos to a swank garden party. He immediately tries to kill the man with a bamboo spear. On the run, the two boys head for the wild, where they will meet Santos again.
"Lazaro of the Dolphins" doesn't quite have the ring of "Tarzan of the Apes", but Where the River Runs Black has some terrific scenes of a feral child frolicking with his cetacean friends in the middle of a lost Brazilian lagoon. 1 The direction and the camerawork pull us into a green and fertile corner of creation where these friendly porpoises (or small whales?) protect Lazaro and his mother from alligator-like caímanes and predatory humans. This film's version of the rain forest skips mention of oppressive heat and clouds of insects; we know that Lazaro and Segundo are on the right track when they head back in the direction of the Black Water.
Despite this idealized grotto the story is based firmly in Brazilian reality. The orphanage is run by an unfriendly Mother Superior (Conchata Ferrell) who wastes little sentiment on her charges; Lazaro is a little savage and the first thing he needs to learn is discipline. The rapist and murderer Santos has built himself up as a respected citizen and political candidate. When the boys pursue him into the wild, they come upon his hellish gold mine, the too-oppressive-to-be-real Serra Palada immortalized in the opening of Godfrey Reggio's hypnotic visual docu-poem Powaqqatsi. Hundreds of emaciated workers, covered from head to toe in red mud, trudge up narrow paths bearing large sacks of wet earth on their backs. When Lazaro stumbles upon this oppressive spectacle, we almost expect to hear Philip Glass music.
Theater owner surely had reservations about this film. What is the intended audience? Much of the film is for all ages, and the scenes with the freshwater dolphins are enchanting. The jungle woman is quite a vision emerging from her lagoon nude, although at a respectful distance from the camera. Church types wouldn't be pleased by the notion of the priest straying with this Sheena of the Amazon. The one authority figure does not condemn this, but simply mourns the younger priest's disappearance. The rape scene is short but violent. Lazaro is often in peril later in the show, but nothing to match the opening scenes.
Overall, Where the River Runs Black does seem like a modified Tarzan story, as Lazaro is adapted to the wild and destined to become another jungle legend. The locals interpreted the Eagle Woman as being able to transform herself into her beloved dolphins, and after Lazaro's final, very Tarzan-like feat, he certainly has the right stuff to become Lord of the Rain Forest.
The project attracted some quality talent. Charles Durning, Peter Horton, Conchata Ferrell and Dana Delany made the trip to Brazil and give very creditable performances. Castulo Guerra has played a number of notable villains in other pictures. Of the cast, only the hero Alessandro Rabelo seems to have kept away from further acting work. He has a great face for expressing emotions without words.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of Where the River Runs Black should be one of the most attractive discs in the MGM library, but the DVD is of barely passable quality. It looks very much like an older flat-letterboxed transfer from the 1990s that has been blown up to play back widescreen enhanced. All kinds of video noise and false texturing muck up the image, which displays okay on a small screen but will not enlarge well past twenty inches or so. It's a shame, as this is a beautifully photographed show.
MGM includes an original trailer, a beautifully edited piece that brings out the best in the movie while presenting it accurately.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Where the River Runs Black rates:
1. Talk about Dis Must Be Da Place: the title "Where the River Runs Black" suggests the legendary Black Lagoon, where the very ecologically militant Gill Man makes his home, must be nearby. Scaly fish-men versus despoilers of the rain forest -- that's my idea of an ecological fantasy.
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T'was Ever Thus.