In these heady times of free wi-fi, easy global travel and television channels dedicated to exploring the larger world, cultural ignorance is finally becoming a thing of the past. Whereas 60 years ago Western Civilization frequently sought to mold other nations into its own image, now, ethnic traditions and customs are becoming more cherished as we celebrate each nation's unique history. While many Western states' historical attempts to "culturize" less developed countries were misguided and inappropriate, two new films at the Flicks demonstrate that such cultural bias can be the basis for either tragedy or comedy.
Choosing laughter over tears, French spy spoof OSS 117: Cairo—Nest of Spies stars Jean Dujardin as Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, the Gallic version of James Bond, albeit a rude and frequently dense model. In 1953, he is sent to Egypt to discover what led to the death of his partner Jack, a man for whom he holds a suspicious amount of affection given his earnest proclamations of love for women. His contact in the land of the Pharaohs is the luscious Larmina (Berenice Bejo), a devout Muslim who happens to mambo.
Vying for Hubert's attention is Princess Al Tarouk (Aure Atika), the niece of Egypt's recently deposed king. She's also on Jack's case, seeking the ship filled with weaponry that he was looking for when he died. With Russia, France and Egyptian nationalists all racing for the missing cache, danger and deception abound. Through all this intrigue bumbles Hubert, surviving more through charm and incredible luck than by any savviness or deductive skill. Completely ignorant of Egyptian culture or language, he insults the locals, invites unnecessary fights with his own agents and only picks up on clues when they are verbally spelled out for him.
Dujardin plays Hubert as the perfect blend of 007 and Inspector Clouseau, and his conviction of his nation's superiority is both irritating and hilarious. Unaware of Egypt's growing dislike of foreign powers, he hands out pictures of French President Rene Coty as tips and gifts. When an early morning call to prayer awakens him, he climbs to the top of the mosque tower and physically silences the offender. Tactless yet suave, Dujardin manages to make a very likable character out of someone we should hate.
The production on this film is a treat to anyone who digs the golden age of cinema. Director Michel Hazanavicius has gone to great pains to recreate the look and feel of classic action-adventure films, with notable homages to Casablanca, Indiana Jones, and of course, Goldfinger-era Bond films. Using the same film stock and dead-on camerawork, one could really believe that OSS 117 is a recently unearthed gem from bygone days, if not for its updated farcical story.
The real joke of the film is found in comparing our historical Western bias with our supposed modern acceptance of cultural difference. We may be more polite about it, but have we really accepted the disparity? It's a frequently amusing, sometimes riotous treat of a film.
The Eurocentric, imperial mindset gets a more heavy-handed critique in the new Merchant Ivory production, Before the Rains. Tea and spice distributor Henry Moores (solidly if not engagingly played by Linus Roache) is building a road through southern India with the help of local foreman T.K. Neelan (Rahul Bose). The year is 1937, and just beginning are murmurs of national unrest that will lead to India declaring independence from Britain 10 years later. Ignoring the religious and cultural mores of his native neighbors, Henry has an affair with his married housekeeper Sajani (Nandita Das), but stops short of promising to leave his own wife Laura (the always charming Jennifer Ehle). When Sajani's guilt is discovered by her village, a conflicted T.K. is forced to decide whether to hide the guilt of the man who he believes is bringing progress to India, or to expose Henry and return to the traditions and values of his people.
Director Santosh Sivan doubles on this production as cinematographer, and his eye for the majesty of his native country is graceful, sweeping and assured. Visually, this is exactly the type of film Merchant Ivory specializes in, an exotic tale that still has a conflicted Englishman's dilemma at its core. The film is gorgeous to watch, with a lush soundtrack by Mark Kilian, but I felt that it was hampered by too sparse of a story. Sivan admirably paces the film and it never feels either rushed or too strung-out, but it feels like we only glimpse the surface.
I rarely feel like a film deserves more than two hours of my attention, but in this case 98, minutes simply isn't enough. More detail on the Indian independence movement would have helped flesh out the story, and although all the actors admirably portray their characters, you can see there is much more to each of their stories. Henry's belief in his own omnipotence is shattered, but we don't get to see the aftermath, nor are we satisfied with his conflict over throwing T.K. to the wolves. We barely glimpse the depths in Sajani and Laura, both of whom love Henry and are crushed by his betrayal.
There is a wealth of emotion here, but as viewers, we are left with too little, too late in the film. Only T.K. emerges as a fully formed character, and Bose gives a standout performance. His desire to improve the lives of his countrymen wars with his own pride in rejecting their "backward" ways, and you can see the torturous conflict weighing on him.
Both OSS 117 and Before the Rains artfully comment on the Westerner's place in the development of an emerging nation. While the world generally has a better handle on cultural respect, there are still shocking gaps in our decorum toward other traditions. At a 2007 benefit, actor Richard Gere playfully planted a smooch on Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. Perfectly innocent in a Western setting, but the fallout in India was enormous. Warrants were issued for both Gere and Shetty, and complaints of obscenity were filed. Western brashness can ruffle a lot of feathers, even while offering other benefits. We should be mindful of the attitude that comes with these gifts. After all, who knows when the tables will turn again? The Egyptians were building the pyramids while Europeans were living in huts and worshipping trees. Pardon my rudeness if you still do.