Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Sweet Hereafter

THE SWEET HEREAFTER                A                    
Canada  (110 mi)  1997  ‘Scope  d:  Atom Egoyan 

When, lo, as they reached the mountain-side,
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountainside shut fast…
—Verse 13, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, by Robert Browning (1888), Robert Browning: the Pied Piper of Hamelin: the complete text

Egoyan’s ferociously sorrowful adaptation from the Russell Bank’s novel, a stunningly beautiful, mesmerizing film that leaves one in a trance, always understating the power of the subjects, using skillful interwoven time periods, parceling out little bits and pieces of information, much of it told in flashback, moving fluidly back and forth across month’s of screen time, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Paul Sarossy, with a medieval and renaissance musical score by Mychael Danna, all in a rhythmic, musical dialogue of pure cinematic poetry.  One of the most powerful, yet at the same time, so quietly affecting and profoundly moving films, with so much empty space to fill, both in the visual outer and emotional inner worlds, and with such haunting music which becomes the lead character in the film, leading us like moths to a flame through this amazing emotional landscape.  Egoyan had just became a father when this film was made, changing the setting of the book from upstate New York to British Columbia, also reducing a multiple first person narrative of five characters in the book to two main characters, while adding references to The Pied Piper of Hamelin that are not in the book, which so impressed author Russell Banks that he has a small role in the film as the town doctor, freely admitting that he felt Egoyan’s adaptation of Browning’s poem is an improvement over the demolition derby imagery used in the book, which was based upon a real event, a 1989 Bus crash in Alton, Texas where twenty-one children drowned, forty-nine others were injured and it led to a massive $150 million dollar litigation, out of which the participating lawyers earned roughly $50 million dollars in fees.  The film won the 2nd place Jury Prize at Cannes, also the FIPRESCI prize, and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, where a once every decade, 2004 Toronto Film Festival polling of festival programmers, film critics, industry professionals and Canadian film scholars ranked the film fourth in the Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time. 
The film is set in a small Canadian mountain town in the winter calm which followed the deaths of fourteen children who died in a school bus crash.  Ian Holm plays Mitchell Stevens, the city lawyer who tries to represent the grieving parents, all living in separate, isolated homes with long, winding driveways in a class-action lawsuit against the bus company with the ultimate promise of money, to give direction to their anger and “the sheer magnitude of your suffering,” yet leaving them in a more divided state of anger and disarray.  At the same time he seeks to find expression for his own loss and anger, “you suffer enough rage and helplessness and your love turns to something else, it turns to steaming piss,” while losing his daughter Zoe (Caerthan Banks, Russell Banks’ daughter) to a world of drug addiction, clinics, flop-houses, more drugs, more money for drugs, all premised on her lie that she was going to try for something better.  But she only grows more faraway and distant, lost to the streets, where eventually she contracts HIV and he is consumed with losing her, which is contrasted against the innocence of Zoe as a beautiful child, with an extraordinary memory of horror when she was bit by baby black widow spiders and he had to be prepared “to go all the way,” to surgically cut her throat, per a doctor’s phone instructions, to save her life, as otherwise the swelling would cause her to stop breathing before she could get to the hospital.  This is contrasted against yet another ominous story of the Pied Piper, a bedtime story lulling the children to a sweet rest, after ridding a town of rats, the Pied Piper took the children away because he was mad they refused to honor their debt to him, so he wanted the town punished.  Promising a place “where everything was strange and new,” the Pied Piper lured the children out of the town, all skipping and dancing after his wonderful music to an open portal in the mountainside before it closed up.  Yet one was left behind, “one was lame and could not dance the whole of the way.”  The prominent use of a fairy tale motif effectively alters the point of view to that of the children, giving meaning to the bus crash from a child’s perspective—the unheard voices.   

As the lawyer, tormented by the fate of his own daughter, Stevens meets the families, which the audience meets as well, becoming familiar, trying to convince them “There is no such thing as an accident…It’s up to me to ensure moral responsibility in society,” while the camera always sees on the walls pictures of lost children, photographs, memories, coinciding with the opening shot of a mother, her bare breast exposed, lying asleep in bed with her husband and small child, an image of family beauty, safe and secure.  Another husband and wife see their adopted son off on the school bus, seemingly small against the white sky and the snowy mountains, an act of simplicity, a parental good-bye, an instinctual concern, an unknowing, final farewell before the bus is lost in a beautiful mountainside covered in snow.  Sarah Polley (18 at the time) plays Nicole, the lone survivor of the crash, a 15-year old left paralyzed from the waist down, clearly identifying with the cripple who was left behind, feeling guilty that she survived when others perished, seen reading the poem as she babysits for the two children of Billy Ansel (Bruce Greenwood), children who later die in the accident, so eloquently interspersed throughout, providing a magnificent performance, singing Tragically Hip’s theme song “Courage,” Sarah Polley - Courage (The Sweet Hereafter) - YouTube (4:20).  She is, herself, a victim of her own father’s incest, and burns with rage at him now that she is crippled and in a wheelchair, no longer able to realize her dream.  “I’m a wheelchair girl now and it’s hard to pretend I’m a beautiful rock star.  Remember, Daddy, that beautiful stage that you were going to build for me?  You were going to light it with candles.”  As the accident is shown, the children’s screams are consumed in a hushed silence, to a deeper agony within our memory, to a place where only silence answers, to a sweet peace, where train whistles can be heard in the background offering silent passage to “the sweet hereafter,” a place where people can find peace with their fate.    

It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!
I can't forget that I’m bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me.
For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand,
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new.

But this peace is disrupted and disturbed by the town’s reaction to the lawyer, by an innocent girl’s misplaced blame, by a silent rage and a promise that money can somehow make things right, where the lives of the townspeople begin to disintegrate, severing the ties and values that created this community.  Billy pleads with Nicole’s parents to drop the lawsuit, “I’ll even give you the money I got for my kids.  That’s the way we used to do it, remember?  Help each other, because this was a community.”  Developing themes of guilt, separation, anger, unnamable sin, and excruciating loss, the human response to such a nightmarish tragedy is to seek relief, compensation, and perhaps even closure for their loss.  But that remains elusive and unattainable, as each individual weaves their own way through the various stages of loss, where Dolores (Gabrielle Rose) the bus driver and the parents of the lost children all end up someplace different, if only mentally, because life as they knew it had changed forever.  At the sight of the relocated bus driver, we hear the words of Nicole in a voiceover, “As you see her, two years later, I wonder if you realize something, I wonder if you understand that all of us, Doloros, me, the children who survived, the children who didn’t, that we’re all citizens of a different town now.  A place with its own special rules, special laws, a town of people living in the sweet hereafter.”  Holm and Polley give career best performances on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, where he is an estranged parent and a hollow soul, where anger and frustration cuts through his icy exterior, while she is a lost child and violated innocent, yet remains the fiercely intelligent moral center throughout.  In the world of quiet yet lacerating chamber dramas, this is a towering work, perhaps the film that all other works of heart-wrenching trauma and despair must compare themselves to, shot in the silence and vast wintry landscape of endless snow, an extraordinary film about grief, about broken promises, and the lonely, personal search within ourselves to find redemption. 

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