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Love among the ruins 

Sweethearts battle the elements in films from Australia and Palestine

There's a rather raw scene near the end of the Australian drama Japanese Story in which a woman sits sobbing in a bathroom stall. She punches the solid wall next to her, and then punches it again, hard. She cringes and it looks like it really hurts. It's the most wrenching and believable moment in the film.

The actress is Toni Collette and she's the star in Sue Brooks' drama of adultery in the Pilbara desert of Western Australia. Collette is an almost universally beloved actress, but she's also the sort of unconventionally attractive performer who gets most of her work in supporting roles. After starring in Muriel's Wedding in 1994, Collette, with her expressive face, toothy grin and asymmetrical ears, turned in a string of scene-stealing supporting roles that makes us long to see her in bigger roles. Most recently, she was electrifying in her brief turn as Julianne Moore's blowzy, lesbian neighbor in The Hours, and her role as a suicidal mom in About a Boy was simultaneously piteous and hilarious.

She returns to top billing in the curiously titled Japanese Story and it would be nice to report that this film is a successful vehicle for her talents. Unfortunately, she's by far the best thing in a lugubrious, unconvincing story. Collette plays Sandy, a smart and aggressive geologist who gets saddled with a demeaning gig: She's ordered to escort a visiting Japanese businessman around her company's remotely situated mines, a task that means spending hours and days in the middle of nowhere with a total stranger.

This man, Hiromitsu, is played by Gotaro Tsunashima, and he's something of a stereotypical Japanese business drone (though it's refreshing to meet one who hates karaoke). Either inscrutable or inexpressive (you decide!), Hiromitsu spends his time complaining to the folks back home about his uppity driver, though he allows to one confidant that Sandy has a rather nice derriere.

Fascinated by old rocks, he insists that Sandy take him further and further into the desert in pursuit of novelty.

The film's biggest problem is that, although Tsunashima is a nice-looking, lithe and reserved gentleman, he's utterly devoid of charisma. Consequently, it's hard to work up any enthusiasm for the promised trajectory of the narrative. From his first, inauspicious meeting with Sandy, the coming dynamic is clear: The intense and resentful Sandy will warm up to this stiff, traditional man who in turn will discover his inner mojo.

It would be unfair to say the ensuing story is without interest. It's just not interesting enough, despite an unexpected turn of events late in the story. The two antagonists have the expected cultural clash, and one scene about confusing near-homonyms of their respective tongues is handled particularly well. But the first really gripping complication doesn't occur until well into the film, when their rented SUV gets stuck in the middle of a forbidding desert. (Here, we learn two things about survival in the Australian wilderness: Never, ever, abandon your vehicle and, when all else fails, build a "dead man" using the electric winch that these outback vehicles have.) But before you can say walkabout, this problem gets solved and it's back to civilization for this couple.

Elsewhere on the positive side of the ledger, the love scenes are sensitive and full of feeling, the Cinemascope landscapes of Australian vastness are gorgeous and so is the lovely Japanese-style score. But in the end, we're left sympathizing with Colette as she beats her fist against the bathroom wall. Make this movie better! Bam! Make it worthy of Toni Collette! Ouch!

Two lovers spend a lot of time driving through a very different wasteland in Rana's Wedding, a striking, quietly furious new film from the Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad. But instead of a forbidding, unpopulated desert, we're in the forbidding and contentiously populated desert territory of occupied Jerusalem.

Rana (the stunning, green-eyed Clara Khoury) is a fiery, independent teenaged girl from a relatively affluent Palestinian family in Jerusalem. The events of this film take place over the course of a single day that begins with the young woman sneaking out of her family's house. We learn that Rana must marry her boyfriend, against her family's wishes, by four o'clock or else she'll be forced to move to Egypt with her folks.

In most movie cultures, this would be the setup for a standard-issue marriage comedy. But this ain't no Muriel, this ain't no Monsoon: This is Israel, and the Palestinians who live there are second-class citizens. The human particulars of the romantic dilemma are all but consumed by the everyday humiliations and inconvenience that Palestinians face.

Rana's day begins with a desperate search for her boyfriend Khalil, who has had to stay put due to a recent spate of bombings. In matter-of-fact fashion, the film shows scenes of Palestinian boys hurling rocks at Israeli soldiers who respond with gunfire. In a scarcely believable testimony to the quotidian nature of such events, ordinary Palestinian non-combatants simply duck their heads and scurry through the line of fire. For her part, Rana pauses to hurl a rock of her own before she continues on to find Khalil, who has holed up in the theater where he is the director.

In style and technique, Rana's Wedding owes much to the films of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. The middle section of the film is taken up with Rana, Khalil and his groomsman driving circuitously through the blasted regions of occupied Jerusalem, searching for the registrar that's required for their marriage. We see bombed-out cars, Palestinian homes being bulldozed and roadblock after roadblock, queue after queue.

However, it's both a drawback and an unavoidable reality of this film that Rana and Khalil's obstacle course impedes a deep development of their relationship. It's unclear--even to them, perhaps--whether they're really in love. Rana's need for independence from her family can only be satisfied with a marriage to Khalil. As for Khalil, it's suggested that Rana is merely the most beautiful, headstrong and unshakeable of various romantic options at his disposal.

If much of Rana's Wedding has the clear-eyed repose of a Kiarostami film, it does in fact finally and fittingly pay obeisance to the conventions of the wedding comedy. But even as the nuptials are celebrated in a very unusual but sadly appropriate setting, the film ends with defiantly prophetic verses of the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

Here on the slopes before sunset and the gun-mouth of time
Near orchards deprived of their shadows,
We do what prisoners do,
And what the unemployed do:
We nurture hope.

  • Sweethearts battle the elements in films from Australia and Palestine


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