MANDERLAY — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Lars von Trier’s second installment in his Brechtian trilogy of American culture stays true to the stage bound theatrical setting of his first installment (“Dogville” 2003) even if his protagonist heroine Grace seems not to have kept any continuity from her traumatizing experiences in Dogville, i.e. multiple rapes, torture, and various humiliations, including being enslaved before ordering the massacre of a small town. After all, murderers are humiliated by their own bloodlust.
Perhaps that is as it should be. That was a lot of baggage. Bryce Dallas Howard takes over the role that Nicole Kidman portrayed in “Dogville,” just as Willem Dafoe fills James Caan’s shoes as Grace’s gangster father this time around.
Under von Trier’s fluid handheld camera there is no mistaking the parable aspect of his rigorous dramaturgy, this time dedicated to a slave plantation operating 70 years pat the abolishment of slavery. If you do the math you know that it’s Depression Era 1933. You don’t have to ponder long to realize that slavery in America continues albeit under a transmogrified state of incremental genocide glossed over with pretty words such as democracy, freedom, and capitalism.
So it is that our minimalist tale of colonialism, best intentions, and hidden agendas comes into microcosmic view when the headstrong Grace arrives at Manderlay in the company of her smarmy dad and his gun-toting henchmen and lawyers. A slave (Isaach De Bankolé) is strapped to a grate, about to be whipped by one of his white masters when Grace intercedes and takes the whip away from the brute with the aid of her dad’s goons. The plantation matriarch Mam (Lauren Bacall) appears from her mansion with shotgun in hand, but put in her place by Grace. Mam wasn’t long for this world anyway as it turns out but she does leave behind a book (“Mam’s Law”) which includes a “code of conduct” for the plantation. Most appalling, if informative, is the book’s dilatation of seven slave character types with titles such as “Proudly,” “Clownin’,” and “Pleasin’.”
Grace decides to stay on at Manderlay in order to oversee the slaves’ transition to freedom. She keeps her father’s lawyer and a few of his guards. Under von Trier’s seven remaining chapter headings, Grace learns the hard way the unseen forces and brutal tactics that undo her naïve attempts at leading the slave community to any form of holistic equality.
Not since Ingmar Bergman’s trenchant Cinema has a filmmaker so efficiently tackled universal truths of human behavior that predictably veer toward duplicity, greed and the lowest common denominator of groupthink that priests, politicians, judges, and corporate CEOs wield under the guise of democracy. “The lesser of two evils” is still immoral, n’est-ce pas?
Not rated. 139 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)
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