Seen at the Movies:

Girl with a Pearl Earring

gets my vote for the second most beautiful movie of 2003, following Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. Based on Tracy Chevalier’s novel, and a directorial debut for Peter Webber, Girl is the fictionalized story of what might have been the background to Dutch master Vermeer’s famous painting of the title. Scarlett Johansson, already riding high from her performance in Lost in Translation, gives a wonderfully subtle performance as Griet, housemaid to Vermeer’s troublesome family. Griet’s strong peasant features and apparent intelligence catch the attention of the painter (Colin Firth), and from there on all is submerged erotic attraction, which emerges through such gestures as Vermeer piercing his muse’s ear. Webber’s style is quiet and at times almost too obscure—like sex, drama is often so tamped down here that the point of a scene can be overly ambiguous.

Masterpiece Theatre: Girl With a Pearl Earring.. Photo: Lions Gate Films

But Girl with a Pearl Earring is consistently fascinating, especially in its exquisite evocation of 17th-century Holland. Production designer Ben Van Os, working in the well-preserved medieval towns of Delft, Netherlands, and Damme, Belgium, as well as a studio in Luxembourg, immerses the viewer in the grubby canal banks and dark interiors of Vermeer’s world, while costume designer Dien van Straalen captures both the repressiveness and fetishistic potential in the puritanical garb of devout Protestant Griet; equally effective is the dark velvet and formidable collar worn by Judy Parfitt, who gives a juicy performance as Vermeer’s purse-string-holding mother-in-law. The work of cinematographer Eduardo Serra cannot be praised too highly—without ever coming across as self-conscious, the film’s look replicates the artist’s tonal values, with one side of Johansson’s face, for example, providing a point of light amidst the shadows. The accomplishment of the movie is to make this style seem organic to the environment.

This being early January, new movie releases of note are few and far between. So our attention must turn to a reissue of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers, playing at New York’s Film Forum and in several other cities before its release on DVD. A pristine new print allows one to fully appreciate Pontecorvo and DP Marcello Gatti’s genius in conveying the look and feel of grainy, handheld newsreel immediacy to narrative film (so much so that the disclaimer “Not one foot of newsreel or documentary film has been used” ran on the original release). In recreating the 1954-62 Algerian fight for independence from France, which included bombings of cafes and an Air France office in the European quarter of the city, the film has a capacity to provoke and chill the blood that, for obvious reasons, has not diminished over time. Though Pontecorvo’s sympathies are undoubtedly with the revolutionary cause, he doesn’t flinch from the Algerian National Liberation Front’s terrorist ruthlessness; nor does he engage in easy emotional manipulation on behalf of either side in the conflict. Although its techniques have been imitated many times, The Battle of Algiers still feels like a one-of-a-kind work.

With the Oscar calendar accelerated this year (nominations are announced Jan. 27, and the awards ceremony is Feb. 29), critics’ groups and Hollywood guilds are also naming their honorees earlier. The Costume Designers Guild, for example, announced its feature nominees in two categories last week. For costume design excellence in contemporary film, the contenders are Durinda Wood, A Mighty Wind; Joseph G. Aulisi, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle; Catherine Thomas, Kill Bill – Vol. 1; and Sophie de Rakoff Carbonell, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde. For excellence in period or fantasy film, Ngila Dickson is a double nominee, for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and The Last Samurai; her competitors are Penny Rose for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and Judianna Makovsky for Seabiscuit. Next week, the American Society of Cinematographers and the Art Directors Guild will announce their nominees.--John Calhoun

Seen in Brooklyn: One of the final events in this year’s Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was Alladeen, an eye-catching collaboration by Marianne Weems and her New York City-based company, The Builders Association, and motiroti, a London-based group. Following a successful tour in the UK, Paris, and the US, Alladeen settled into BAM’s Harvey Theatre where it was acclaimed by the critics and thoroughly enjoyed by the audiences. Loosely based on the legend of Aladdin, the story is primary set in Bangalore, India, where natives are taught to suppress their Indian accents to “pass” as Americans and get jobs in call centers where the operators supply sales and technical support to unsuspecting American consumers. The idea is that we are finally living in a global village where culture has been homogenized by technology. Directed by Weems, Alladeen was designed by Keith Khan and Ali Zaidi, of motiroti, with lighting design by Jennifer Tipton, sound design by Dan Dobson, and video design by Christopher Kondek and Peter Norrman.

Alladeen: a mix of video and live performance. Photo: Courtesy BAM

An extremely successful collaboration, the end result is a seamless, technically flawless piece that combines electronic music, experimental video techniques, and sets that combine structural elements and large video screens. The video images loom over the set as in the letter-box format on a television set, and often there are many images happening at once, including clips from India’s popular Bollywood film industry, adding to the rich visual texture of the piece. The video images are slick, colorful, and insightful. As fast-moving images depict the globalization of the world, New York and London share the same videoscape of the inside and outside of a Virgin Mega Store, with the icons of each city replacing each other: the New York parking meters and the red phone boxes of London. With a cell phone in hand, our Indian call center operator combs the globe looking for new clients for Bangalore. The implications of Alladeen underscore technology as an invisible force that is reshaping the world in which we live. A website and music video for Asian television augment the live performance, giving Alladeen its own global presence.--Ellen Lampert-Greaux

A touch of Bollywood in Alladeen
Photo: Courtesy BAM

Seen Off Broadway: Nobody in my lifetime in New York has ever had the guts to stage Goethe’s enormous, baggy, difficult, not-really-stageworthy masterpiece Faust. Until now, that is: David Herskovitz and his colleagues at Target Margin Theatre, one of the top downtown companies, are giving us Faust on the installment plan, staging it in pieces over the next few seasons, using a translation by Douglas Langworthy. The first episode, These Very Serious Jokes, covers approximately the first 2,600 lines of the text, from the opening prologue to Faust’s first encounter with Gretchen, whose relationship with the tormented scholar will lead to her death. Herskovitz’s concept is a Faust in rehearsal, with a partly finished set accompanied by props hanging from clotheslines. The actors are in rehearsal garb, except for Faust, who wears pajamas and a bathrobe. At times, both Faust and the Devil are miked. If Herskovitz’s staging is a wildly uneven mix of tones and style—well, so is the original play. At any rate, the cast is well-spoken and generally effective, especially David Greenspan, who makes for an elegant and deeply sinister devil. Will Badgett is a effectively neurotic and driven Faust; other standouts include Pun Bandhu, George Hannah, and Purva Bedi. Carol Bailey’s scene-scape of half-finished flats, deliberately cheapo props, and homemade effects, is certainly imaginative and Lenore Doxsee gets a striking number of moods and looks out of a low-budget rig. Kaye Voce’s rehearsal wear is generally well-chosen. Tim Schellenbaum is listed as “sound consultant,” a rather strange title since the production is filled with effects; anyway, it’s interesting. It’s too early to judge Herkovitz’s vision of Faust, but it’s off to a reasonably compelling start.--David Barbour

Full of the devil: These Very Serious Jokes.. Photo: Paula Court.