Ever since the early 2000s it’s been in vogue, at least on the Internet, to make a mockery of Nicolas Cage. Of course, some of Nicolas Cage’s films have been, as they are in every actor’s career, lacking, that should not detract from the artist’s work as a career-spanning whole. In fact there are a number of films Cage did early in his career that are worth revisiting and may help restore some of the public’s respect, a respect I believe Mr. Cage deserves. It is important, however, to remember that for the most part Cage’s early career was set against being typecast, and found the actor taking a variety of roles in a diverse selection of films; a tactic Johnny Depp would also employ during the early days of his film career. That all said, the film I would like to draw attention to is the Italian film by Giuliano Montaldo titled Le Raccourci (which in America was released as Time To Kill) from 1989.
Cage’s character Lt. Silvestri is the focus of this character study, an Italian musketeer stationed in Africa in the year 1936. Upon wrecking a truck, Silvestri, suffering from a toothache, sets out across a desert. There he encounters an Ethiopian woman, whom he rescues from an assault, only to accidently shoot the woman on accident while attempting to kill a snake. Silvestri had, by the time he kills the Ethiopian woman, had intercourse with his companion. By the time Silvestri rejoins his regiment headquarters, he suspects he has contracted leprosy from the Ethiopian woman. The remained of the film chronicles Silvestri’s slow psychological deterioration as he copes with his suspicions.
Cage’s performance is pointed and subtle, negating cliché by adopting a very natural quality devoid of the heroic nature attributed to male leads in this kind of genre picture. What is more interesting is how Montaldo uses leprosy as a metaphor for Silvestri’s guilt. Silvestri, an Italian and clearly Catholic, is unable to reconcile his actions towards the Ethiopian woman and the fate which he believes has befallen him. For Silvestri, leprosy has become the penance he must pay for his deeds. On a grander scale, Silvestri’s emotional turmoil and how it was brought about becomes an allegory for 20th century Imperialism and its long history in the Western world. Thusly, with one simple narrative arch Montaldo is able to chastise both the debilitating effects of Catholicism on the modern world and the constant intervening of the Western world in the affairs of Africa and the Middle East.
Themes of anti-Imperialism and pro-isolationism, as a political concept, had become a trend in big budget dramas of the late 80s during the first Bush administration. Director Roland Joffe tackled such themes in his critically acclaimed film The Mission (1986) starring Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro. And, like Montaldo uses Silvestri, Joffe uses the Robert DeNiro Rodrigo character to articulate the contrast between the moral right and the political wrong. Though The Mission is set in the Amazon Jungle of the 1750s, the film has the same points to make about Western intervention in other countries. However, Joffe’s film advocates a universal spiritual understanding between cultures that may in fact be the answer to all conflict. The issue with The Mission therefore becomes that this spiritual ideology is rooted in none other than the Catholic Church, a concept in direct opposition to the sociological thinking at work in Time To Kill.
Both The Mission and Time To Kill suffer the same ultimate fate of being the contrived liberal re-imagining of history where the proponents of change are martyred on the altar of racial equality. That is to say that despite both films’ efforts to be as sympathetic to the native peoples depicted therein, neither filmmaker is capable of understanding those people to the degree with which they understand themselves. So the films struggle to approximate a Western audience’s idea of those native peoples without adhering to the racist iconography that would signify bigotry or ignorance. Both films would have fared better had they adopted Werner Herzog’s approach to depicting a native people in his film Fitzcarraldo (1982).
What Herzog does that Joffe and Montaldo do not is to keep the native peoples as foreign to the audience as they are to the film’s protagonist, which is of course Klaus Kinski. In this way Herzog demonstrates the ignorance of invasive settlers and the absurd assumptions with which they come equipped while simultaneously equating the appropriation of native people’s lands with the egotistical wish fulfillment of Kinski’s opera house. Herzog avoids the Pandora’s box that Joffe and Montaldo open in their films. Unlike Herzog, Montaldo and Joffe are immensely concerned with humanizing a non-Westernized culture in Western terms. So, no matter how well meaning, racial archetypes still pervade the film, even if only on the peripherals.
Como Era Gostoso O Meu Frances (1971) or How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman? is still the definitive film text on Western expansion and Imperialism. Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman shows the European Imperialist much in the same way Herzog depicts Fitzcarraldo, though in this case with the Brazilian natives as the film’s center. In one of cinema’s rare instances an audience is able to see and understand the invasive nature of Imperialism and the strangeness of European culture from an outsider’s perspective. Dos Santos avoids Western iconography and cinematic signifiers. Instead, the film contains 90% wide shots that are almost always static, conjuring a kind of theatricality that is thusly negated due to the lack of communication via dialogue in the film. This literally casts the audience as outsider observers, constantly aware of how powerless they are and how inevitable the culture clash is. By subverting with his cinematic style any strong emotional attachments to the film’s characters on the part of the audience, dos Santos is able to convey his anti-Imperialist and his anti-Catholic ideology without the baggage that is inherent in the approach Joffe and Montaldo take to similarly themed films.
What remains the most startling conclusion here has actually very little to do with the effectiveness of A Time To Kill or The Mission. Rather, the major problem with Western filmmaking is that despite the film’s subject, entertainment value must remain the priority. How else could Steven Spielberg’s anti-slavery film Amistad still manage to be grotesquely racist?