Mani Ratnam's Roja (1992) is quite something; in its first hour especially, before the controversial political content really comes into play, it's virtually a masterpiece of popular cinema (simple, accessible, engaging, and itself engaged, spontaneous, vivid, organic, neither stupid nor lazily formulaic). But while I really liked the film overall I am troubled by its jingoism, where Hindu nationalism trumps ridiculously (but no doubt "humanely") sketched Muslim Kashmiri militant villains. It's political-dramatic resolution is akin to Rocky IV's climactic victory speech, where Sylvester Stallone preaches to a hardass Soviet audience (who were won over by his underdog Uncle Sam can-do spirit) that "If I can change ... and if you can change ... maybe we all can change!" Cheers all around. But what exactly is the point of these easy salves in which all it takes for sociopolitical tension to subside is for "our" good guys and "their" not-quite-bad guys to go through a (masochistically?) painful ordeal and come out ready to gasp their way through a chorus of "We Are the World"? It's almost like these types of entertainment are tiny exorcism-attempts for an embattled collective psyche. (And their real world effect is one of the placebo variety. Or sedative.)
Then there's the preachy Peasants in Distress (1994, pictured above), which features two brief kung fu scenes and a bizarre travelogue-ish coda. Authored by His Majesty Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia, its about jealousy and romance among Khmer rebel fighters and two peasants they encounter in the jungle. In it, handsome humanitarian rebel Cheyrith picks up cute peasant-girl Nit. But fellow rebel, and rival officer, Mân, a mean bastard and a genuine civilian-despising militant, doesn't like it, and sees to it that the romance is "tragically short-lived," as the video box copy puts it. (He even twirls his handgun after using it.)
I have no idea who or what this film was actually made for--Western audiences eager to see fictionalizations of problems that the UN has tried to address? Sufficiently un-humanitarian Cambodians? So I'm not really sure how it should be judged; it's an off-the-radar film for me, and I watched it for precisely that reason. Even so, I can't see how justified the film's moralizing is. Once again, we've got political differences--including unsavory political convictions and actions--reduced to character flaws. These sorts of films tell us that people who kill civilians for a cause are either deluded or bad people with any number of vices (smoking, arrogance, alcoholism...). Olaf Möller once icily identified this problem, in which films turn real political problems and disagreements into fiction fodder and personal psychology. (I don't have on hand the issue of Film Comment--at least I think it's in FC--where he wrote it, so no exact quote or citation at the moment.)
One can see this mentality on display in something like The Interpreter, too, Sydney Pollack's recent entertainment that's (kind of) smart and (kind of) has a conscience. For no good reason I can see, Sean Penn's character (and oh does Sean Penn love playing these tortured types) is dealing with his own tough personal tragedy that forms a "strong emotional bond" between himself and Nicole Kidman (a white African who used to be a rugged freedom fighter before she started to "believe in what the UN was doing," got the titular job there, and moved herself into one amazing and tastefully-decorated New York apartment). Penn's character's personal loss is, at least on some level, equated with Nicole Kidman's personal experience of huge social loss and strife. Even if Pollack & Co.'s intentions are good, I tend to view this sort of storytelling as demeaning telescopy of psychological issues onto social ones, and a reduction of sociopolitical realities ...
But that's all I've got for now. Take this as untempered venting rather than a "thesis."
Also, how do people who read this blog like the inclusion of jpegs? Is it good, bad, a nice occasional inclusion?