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Afghanistan: The 20-Plus-Year War

by Andrew Sarris

Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin was made by Italian filmmakers Alberto Vendemmiati, Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Giuseppe Petitto, and had its North American premiere at the 2001 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, where it received the festival’s Nestor Almendros Award for courage and commitment in human-rights filmmaking. Filmed over several months from 1999 to 2000, this understandably chaotic film focuses on an Italian surgeon and a war correspondent who join forces to set up an emergency hospital in northern Afghanistan, a country engulfed in war for more than 20 years.

The Taliban took over the country in 1996, and they seem to be on their way out in 2001. Yet Jung is nothing if not timely, relevant and resonant in its heroic humanism in the face of the seemingly endless suffering of the people in this war-ravaged land, and one cannot find much political enlightenment in this often gruesome depiction of the victims of war. How a nation should be fed and governed is not the first priority of the film’s hospital-enclosed humanitarians. What is actually accomplished here is truly Herculean, but it is only the beginning of the huge task that remains. The film takes place before Sept. 11, 2001, but it’s shocking that we have known and cared so little about Afghanistan’s travails during the last two decades.

To Mamet or Not to Mamet?

David Mamet’s Heist, from his own screenplay, can be liked or disliked because of David Mamet or in spite of him. Then again, it may depend on how tired you are of caper films. I find the two robberies here too complicated as cinematic spectacles to generate any suspense. Gene Hackman can sell me just about anything he wants, but Mr. Mamet inflicts extra burdens on him as the unflappable thief who gets the big payoff at the end at the cost of his young wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) and a loyal confederate, Don Pincus (Ricky Jay). He also kills his mob nemesis, Bergman (Danny DeVito), and retains the respect of his sidekick, Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo). I couldn’t believe any of it on any level, though it could be described as "fun."

Waking the Dead

Linda Yellen’s The Simian Line, from a screenplay by Gisela Bernice, based on a story by Ms. Yellen and Michael Leeds, begins on a Halloween night in Weehawken, N.J., where four couples are gathered in a festive spirit at the home of Katherine (Lynn Redgrave) and her younger lover, Rick (Harry Connick Jr.). The party is first enlivened and then disrupted by the surprise entrance of Arnita (Tyne Daly), a fortuneteller whom Rick has impishly invited for "entertainment." The evening ends badly, with Arnita’s prediction that "one couple will be finished by the end of the year."

Thanks to Ms. Yellen’s casual mise en scene, we don’t immediately realize that two of the guests are ghosts: Edward (William Hurt) is Katharine’s grandfather, who died 80 years ago, and Mae (Samantha Mathis) is a flapper from the Roaring 20’s who has chosen to live her afterlife as spiritedly as she lived her candle-burning-at-both-ends existence in the house next-door to Katharine’s.

The other guests–unfortunately less interesting than the ghosts–are Sandra (Cindy Crawford) and Paul (Jamey Sheridan), a two-career couple yearning for the big break that will land them both in Manhattan, and Marta (Monica Keena) and Billy (Dylan Bruno), Katharine’s Generation X rock ’n’ roll lodgers who are forced to grow up when Marta has to take custody of her son, little Jimmy.

In the end, Arnita’s dire prediction applies only to Edward and Mae, who were never a real couple anyway. Yet Mr. Hurt and Ms. Mathis achieve a more poignant rapport to the end than any of the other couples. It’s partly the characters and partly the performers who are responsible for generating more feelings in the afterlife than the film’s Weehawken Six achieve in here and now.

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This column ran on page 19 in the 12/3/01 edition of The New York Observer.

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