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Solitude, the big killer

by Kaori Shoji
Animals
Rating: * * * Japanese Title: Yume no Tabiji Director: Michael Di Jiacomo Running time: 103 minutes Language: EnglishShowing at Theater Image Forum

You’ll probably need a long, stiff drink after “Animals” — that’s provided that you can last until the sad, sad ending. I foresee a lot of people not being able to take it anymore and leaving halfway through to go look for a bar.

Tim Roth and Mili Avital in “Animals”

This isn’t to say that “Animals” is a “bad” movie. It simply defies all categorization and remains what it is: one hell of a downer. Think of it as a drug experience that leaves you profoundly depressed and radically calm. And if you’re wondering why the title is what it is, “animals” refer to the circus creatures of old, people like “Crocodile Girl,” “The Two-Faced Toad” and “Penguin Boy,” all of whom show up in painted posters but are rarely seen for real. See, already you’re very confused and very thirsty.

Writer/director Michael Di Jiacomo made many award-winning short films in New York before deciding to come out with this feature debut. Fortunately, he had the support of Tim Roth who, besides playing the main character, helped with the dialogue and stayed on for postproduction. (And then he went off to make a film of his own.) The result is what can only be described as substance-induced poetry — a long string of images that lodge themselves in the brain and haunt your subway daydreaming.

It would be a mistake to judge this film in terms of good or bad or how many stars. It’s more a matter of whether you think sharing in someone else’s high (or low) is better than no high (or low) at all.

The theme is solitude and its long-term effects. “Animals” is peopled by a lot of lonely people, kicking off first with a sepia-toned flashback to 1933, in the middle of a Utah desert. A man who was once a tuba player (Mickey Rooney) has settled here, firmly believing that one day a lot of cars will pass through, pay him toll fare and make him rich. A band of French documentarists come to film this strange guy, but there’s very little to film except for his self-enforced solitude. In the end, they leave “feeling less like filmmakers and more like archaeologists.”

Lonely person No. 2 is cab driver Henry (Roth), living in present-day New York. Henry is so bored he’s ready for anything, even death. Especially death. The one image he can’t get out of his mind is himself at 10 years old, standing on a ledge, assailed by the certainty that if he jumps, the world will change and he’ll find himself in paradise. He regrets that he didn’t have the courage to do it back then, but maybe he will have the courage now. He practically begs a holdup guy (John Turturro, in a wonderful cameo appearance) to kill him, but, as is the way with holdups, the guy doesn’t shoot when Henry asks him to. He just kisses Henry on the cheek and gets out of the cab.

But toward the end of the second reel, on an out-of-state excursion, Henry meets the woman of his dreams. Fatima (Mili Avital) works in a yarn factory, and at home she is her mother’s (Barbara Bain) personal slave. She’s lovely and lives in total isolation. The minute he sets eyes on her, Henry is convinced they were made for each other. He wants to take her away, putting an end to their respective solitudes, and live happily ever after in paradise. She very pointedly tells him to go away. He perseveres. She resists. He insists.

One sees how a cabby may fall madly in love with Fatima. She appears before his eyes with long curling hair, wearing cotton work-dresses that flow in the wind as she pedals along dirt roads on an old-fashioned bicycle. She’s slender and filled with distress, so of course he’ll send her love letters and promise to be her savior, forever and ever. When a huge sack of salt pours down on her in the barn, Henry shovels it all up, then sleeps on the salt at night.

For all the dreaminess that defines this work, Di Jiacomo is shrewd enough to inject a little realism after Fatima finally says yes and runs off with Henry. Her fragility fades imperceptibly, her voice becomes a tad shriller, and she displays a practicality in dealing with situations, the future and Henry. Whereupon Henry retreats into his own dream, concentrates on recapturing the vision of paradise and finding out, once and for all, what’s really there.

When two people have been as solitary as Henry and Fatima, words like “I love you” and “I want to make you happy” just don’t mean the same as they do to you and me. Like the freaks in a circus, they are doomed to separate booths, alone and alienated from each other and the rest of the world. The soft, fantasylike visuals will soften the blow, but Di Jiacomo’s message is still very clear.