DVD Review Of Between Strangers

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/20/06


  Between Strangers is the sort of film that never gets made in America- not in Hollywood big budget films nor in independent films, because it is a film that takes its own sweet time in conveying its ideas to the viewer. Thatís not to say that itís a great film, nor even a pretty good one, but watching this 2003 Canadian-Italian film on DVD, shot in Toronto, gives a viewer an insight into how other people enjoy the same basic forms of art.

 This film follows the lives of three different women, each of whom has issues surrounding a trauma involving a little girl, and their own troubles relating to the men in their lives. That the film makes heavy-handed usage of a little girl (Sydney Pearson) that appears to each of them once, as a symbol, is a flaw, since there was no need for symbolism in an otherwise realistic film. The cast is loaded with international film heavyweights, not the least of whom is Sophia Loren, whose son Edoardo Ponti (whose father is Carlo Ponti), in his first time at a filmís helm, wrote and directed this film. She plays Olivia, a woman who works in a Toronto supermarket, and years earlier married an ex-athlete, now wheelchair bound invalid, John, played by Pete Postlethwaite, a man whose rage at the world is directed like a laser at his masochistic wife. Her secret is that she had a daughter out of wedlock, as a teenager, and was forced to give her up for adoption by her father. Now, the daughter (Wendy Crewson) is a famed sculptress, whose fame seems to coincide with Oliviaís own rediscovery of her drawing talent, unused since her pregnancy, of works of art eerily similar to her daughterís, and encouraged by Max (Gerald Depardieu), her gardener friend at a local park. The second woman lead is Natalia Bauer, a photojournalist played by Mira Sorvino, whose photos from the war in Angola have landed her a cover of Time magazine, much to the delight of her father, Alexander (Klaus Maria Brandauer), himself a legendary photojournalist, who both encourages and discourages her passive-aggressively. Yet, she is guilt-ridden by the girl in her photo, because she could have saved the childís life, rather than gotten the photo. The third woman is Catherine (Debra Unger), a famed cellist who is stalking her ex-convict father, Alan Baxter (Malcolm McDowell), after he is released from prison after twenty-two years. She blames him for her motherís death, and this crisis has made her leave her marriage and daughter, who leaves plaintive messages on her answering machine.

  Thatís the set up. Little overtly occurs in the film. Olivia eventually meets her daughter at a book signing, and has a Ďmomentí, but it isnít Hollywood, and is so realistic that one hardly sees any real drama in it. But, thatís good, for it spurs her to leave her husband, and return to her hometown in Italy. Natalia decides to give up photojournalism and work for UN charities in Angola, much to her fatherís chagrin. The cellist saves her father from a mugging, by kids who taunted Natalia, and caused damage in Oliviaís grocery store- this connecting the three main strangers, who are equally estranged from their own loved ones, and then, after kidnapping him by gunpoint, he escapes when a friend of hers stops by. He later dies when he saves a woman from a robbery. She then decides to return to her family, as Natalia heads for Angola, and Sophia for Italy, and all three end up at a table in the airport food court, only to see that the young girl who haunted them is real. They laugh and the film ends.

  The ending was a real downer, for it is far too forced for a film that, until then, had been so subtle and realistic in its building drama. Still, overall, the film is good, but very odd to American eyes. The DVD has no features save a few trailer, but the print and sound are all top notch, and the acting is what really takes a slightly better than average, and makes anything within memorable. All three lead women are as selfish as their male counterparts- fathers and husbands, yet that only adds to the realism, even if it is a bit off-putting, and may account for why this film did not do well in its theatrical release. Sorvinoís character has the least dramatic arc, as we are never quite sure why exactly she would give up on everything merely to staunch typically white liberal guilt, and there are times when Debra Ungerís character veers into psychopathy and then dullness, but Sophia Loren gives a magnificent performance in what is reputedly the hundredth film of her career. Those who have chided her as building a career on her sexuality have never seen this womanís eyes. She is one of those rarities who acts with every square inch of her body. Postlethwaite, as her husband, is also very good, and it should not surprise that the best story in the film is the one the filmmaker accorded his mother.

  Yet, I felt, to a degree, as if I were watching a slightly better than average telefilm from the 1970s, at times, but one that never quite gels into something first rate nor substantial. This is the screenplayís fault, and thus the burden lies with Ponti. It is one of those rare works of art that doesnít terribly move you, but you are better for having seen it, even though it will not haunt you. If that seems like a very mixed reaction, then I have succeeded in recapitulating my experience in watching it, and- for reasons that elude me, and despite all its flaws, I think you should watch it, too.

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