Friday, December 26, 2008

Hard-Knock Life

Sometimes all it takes is a moment for a movie to win me over. About halfway into Slumdog Millionaire, the Muslim orphan Jamal (played at as an early adolescent in the film by Tanay Chheda) and his brother Salim return to their home in Mumbai. Jamal is looking for Latika, the love of his life, and finds her dancing in a brothel. In a normal context, it's a scene that should be filled with squalor and despair; yet while she dances the camera pulls close to Jamal's face, filled with hope and wonder, until we see her reflection in his eye.

This moment (which oddly reminded me of Jennifer Connelly's introduction scene in Once Upon a Time in America) comes none too soon, as I found myself estranged for over the first hour of Slumdog Millionaire. Here Danny Boyle has the most evocative milieu of his filmmaking career, but his hyped-up style rarely pauses for the kind of lingering image like that eyeball shot. Early scenes depict Jamal's poverty-stricken childhood and go on to feature outhouses, religious riots, the death of his mother, and street urchins blinded by an Indian Fagin, but in Boyle's hands it's all a gloss, with the digital camera at first seeming to clash with his magical realist style.

Yet Boyle -- despite his reputation for dark material (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, etc.) is also a romantic, and this "rags to raja" tale begins to gain momentum as the older Jamal (Dev Patel) edges closer to winning the big prize on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? As we see how the answer to each question comes from a defining moment in Jamal's life, the mystical essence of fate -- hard to capture in a movie, and Boyle has missed it before -- transcends the facile quality of the earlier passages.

In a previous post I wondered how the recent attacks in Mumbai would affect the experience of watching the movie. Surprisingly, Slumdog Millionaire brings that tragedy into focus as an event that is sadly commonplace in the fabric of its society. It makes Jamal's wide-eyed hopefulness all the more touching: unlike his brother, he is uncorrupted by the prospect of wealth and resists taking any means to achieve it. Well, maybe not any means: there's a funny sequence where he poses as tour guide for gullible tourists at the Taj Mahal; and a pointed moment where a western couple's rental car gets looted within a matter of minutes. ("You wanted to see the real India?" Jamal declares. "Here it is!") Boyle skillfully weaves the uneasy collusion and clash of capitalism into a traditional culture already beset with conflicts, most notably with the Millionaire game show and its host (an enjoyably smarmy Anil Kapoor).

The filmmakers would need to probe this theme more deeply for Slumdog Millionaire to be as resonantly Dickensian as Ebert claims, but neither is the movie as superficial as some detractors suggest. If it seems odd for an image -- like that iris shot -- to be unconsciously reminscent of Sergio Leone, it is odder still to hear a verbal motif ("It is written") recall the great moment in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia when Omar Sharif says, "Nothing is written except to those who write it." Jamal may have destiny, karma, lady luck on his side, but he also knows in whom to believe and whom not to trust. His guileless savvy is what leaves him open to fate, and his love for Latika is what ultimately makes the film work. This would come across as cynical Hollywood calculation if the character hadn't a kindred spirit behind the camera. Beneath Boyle's flash beats the heart of a true believer.

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