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Paths to survival in our century of sorrow

by Kaori Shoji

The Man Who Cried

Rating: * * * *
Director: Sally Potter
Running time: 97 minutes
Language: English
Opens Dec. 15 at Shibuya Le Cinema and other theaters

It’s a good thing looks can’t kill, because the body count in theaters showing “The Man Who Cried” would be enormous.

News photoChristina Ricci, Johnny Depp and Cate Blanchett in “The Man Who Cried”

Christina Ricci and Cate Blanchett give their best performances to date in this latest work by Sally Potter (“Orlando”), who proves that she knows the power of these actresses’ eyes over any amount of dialogue. Ricci, especially, can concentrate such ammo into her gaze that it becomes positively embarrassing to stare back at the screen.

Though there is much to see and recommend in this movie, most of it has to do with the inner forces of the two leading women. That, and a director who was insightful enough to draw them out.

“The Man Who Cried” is Potter’s tribute to the people whose voices were silenced by the atrocities that Europe saw in the mid-20th century during World War II — those who died without ever expressing their grief, those who survived and had to deal with the deaths. Potter attempts to take their unspoken words and weave them into a story of identity and redemption. Though her characters are few and there is only one man who sheds tears in the story, the title represents the nameless millions who wept and continue to do so.

The protagonist is a girl deprived of her family, culture, language and country, struggling to retrieve the bits and pieces that were once her life.

True to her antecedents as a dancer/musician, Potter uses music as a powerful means of self-expression for her characters, who often have nothing else at their disposal. However, “The Man Who Cried” is not a musical. Though there are plenty of opportunities to make it so, and a story line that practically demands it, Potter stresses the importance of music without actually deploying it very much. The songs are there, but enshrouded in layers of drama.

We hear snatches and strains but rarely the full delivery. And when the climactic number finally reaches our ears, it’s time for the ending credits. It is because of this that you will likely struggle to recall the lyrics and melodies, making you relive the scenes themselves in the way a straightforward musical may fail to do.

The story opens in 1927 in a Russian village. Young Fegere (Claudia Lander-Duke) is living happily in a completely Yiddish environment with her father (Oleg Yankovsky) and grandmother — until the day “Dada” decides to go to America. After he settles down with a good job, he will send for them both. When the village is destroyed by anti-Semites, grandmother puts Fegere in the care of some boys who are on their way to America. Alas, at the port Fegere is separated from them and put on a ship to England. At the pier, immigration officials give all the Russian refugee children Anglicized names, and Fegere becomes Suzie.

At her new home, her foster parents take away the photo of her father that she had been clutching all this time. “Having memories will only upset you,” they tell her.

Deprived of her past, Suzie has a terrible time in school. But when she sees a band of gypsies go by, something stirs in her that causes her to sing. Her father had been a wonderful singer, and she sings a lullaby he always sang to her. A teacher overhears her and is impressed by her voice. He replaces all the Yiddish lyrics with English ones and orders her to sing it that way. Every time she refuses he lashes at her hands with a leather strap. Suzie then realizes that in order to see her father again she must keep going — and in order to do that, she must fit in.

Ten years later, Suzie (Ricci) has grown up and joined a musical dance company on a tour to Paris. There, she hooks up with another Russian refugee called Lola (Blanchett). Unlike Suzie, Lola is gutsy and ambitious. She seduces Italian opera tenor Dante (John Turturro) and secures parts in his productions. Suzie despises the unscrupulous Dante, and is drawn to gypsy horseman Cesar (Johnny Depp). But even as she finally learns to love a man, Paris falls to the Nazis. As a Jew, Suzie is at great risk, but Lola comes through with tickets to America. She is sick of Dante, and her plan is for the two of them to go to Hollywood. Suzie is torn about leaving Cesar, but decides to go — maybe now she can finally meet her father.

Though the relationship between Suzie and Cesar generates plenty of sparks, it is the dynamics between the two women that is most provocative. Lola treats Suzie like a younger sister who must be tutored in the ways of love, but it turns out that it’s Suzie’s stubborn refusal to equate men with happiness and security that gives Lola the strength to leave Dante. Blanchett has never looked so enticing and vulnerable by turns, always smiling to fight back her tears. “One must never look back, but always forward,” is Lola’s maxim.

The play of feelings on Lola’s face is spelled out by Potter in the production notes: “The 20th century was full of tears.”