This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  January 11, 2008

Redemption in the blink of an eye

'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' is compelling true-life drama; 'The Kite Runner' and 'The Water Horse are moving stories of childhood


-- CNS/Miramax

Max Von Sydow and Mathiew Amalric star in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

In both subject matter and cinematic presentation, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has no counterpart in the history of cinema. Based on the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of the French version of Elle, this deeply moving story deals with the debilitating effects of a stroke, which left him totally paralyzed except for the movement of his left eyelid. French actor Mathieu Amalric narrates Jean’s inner thoughts, clear and untouched, and we follow his struggle from the depths of hopelessness to his determination to write a book about his experience. One can begin to appreciate the situation by realizing Jean can communicate only by combining the blinking of his eye with a special alphabet devised by his devoted therapists.

Artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel lifts this story above just another sick-to-health tale by presenting it almost exclusively from Jean’s viewpoint. By using a series of subjective shots, we see and hear only what he experiences. From the very beginning, as in an experimental film, the camera blinks, flashes and blurs. It moves aimlessly across faces, some in double exposures, so that viewers literally experience Jean from his confused awakening state to his eventual fulfillment.

When the camera abandons Jean’s viewpoint, we see only his thoroughly depleted body locked in a wheelchair. But through his active memory and imagination, we are able to travel with him to his past and receive the desires and images he projects to us. The image of the diving bell drives him to the bottom of the sea, but the emerging butterfly enables him to hold fast to the human being inside himself. Everything hinges on Mr. Amalric’s Jean, but the performances of Marie-Josée Croze as his dauntless therapist and Max von Sydow as his aging father deserve praise as well.

The Kite Runner is a moving dramatization of the first novel most Americans read that was set largely in Afghanistan. Director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”) uncovers the book’s heart-tugging power, though scenes set in the United States have far less impact than memories of the two boys sailing kites back in 1978 Kabul. The center of the story is the betrayal by young Amir (Zekiria Ebrahibi) of his childhood friend, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), son of his father’s servant, Ali. However, having moved to California with his father after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Amir courageously returns to rescue his friend’s son from the Taliban and brings him to the United States to be part of his family. The two Afghan child actors are the heart of the movie, but Amir’s upper-class father, Baba (the Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi), gives the film’s richest performance as an anti-mullah autocrat. Mr. Forster’s decision to have the Afghan scenes played in Dari, not English, is a good one, and he recreates a war-ravaged, treeless Kabul through which Amir wanders in search of Hassan.

There Will Be Blood received the most ecstatic praise of all end-of-2007 movies, but its excesses overwhelm its virtues. In trying to create an American epic, partly based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil!, director Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights”) shows stylization and virtuosity. Yet audiences will ultimately feel assaulted by the exaggerated emotionalism of this two-hour-38-minute epic and wish that Mr. Anderson had mastered the power of restraint.

There is an effective, near-wordless opening, with Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in a deep hole, wielding his pickax on the hard earth. But the actor is then allowed to dominate the entire film, playing a turn-of-the-century oil man who can be charming and cruel in the same breath. The only humanizing factor in his life is his child, H.W. (Dillon Freasier). When H.W. loses his hearing after a spectacular derrick explosion, it seems Plainview loses his sanity.

The film’s central struggle is between Plainview and the fresh-faced preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Each tries to use the other, but there is hatred between them. In a brilliant scene, Plainview even accepts baptism at Eli’s hands because he needs the consent of the villagers to go on with his drilling.

Mr. Day-Lewis is at his best when tormenting inferior opponents, but the director introduces so many conflicts that the film loses its focus. A brother by another mother shows up; amazingly, Daniel trusts the stranger. By the end, a maniacal Plainview has veered completely out of control, with hammy lines (“I told you I would eat you”), severing ties with H.W. and engaging in a final struggle with Eli.

Mr. Day-Lewis is a great actor, but he -- like the movie as a whole -- never gets the discipline he needs from the director. Nevertheless, “There Will Be Blood” deserves to be remembered for its modern dissonant score of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and its fluid camerawork following a 1911 oil strike.

Jay Russell (“Tuck Everlasting”) has made another fine family film with The Water Horse, drawing on the story of the Loch Ness monster. Angus (Alex Etel) is a lonely, timid boy who lives with his mother (Emily Watson), head housekeeper on a Scottish estate. The other children play on the shore of the Loch, but Angus never leaves the beach, afraid of drowning in the deep water.

One afternoon he finds a large, strange egg. When he brings it home and cracks it open, he is astonished to find a baby sea monster, which he names Crusoe. Angus tries to hide his discovery from his mother and sister and keeps the ever-hungry (and growing) sea creature in anything that has water, from toilet to bathtub to fountain garden. Finally, enlisting the help of the new handyman, he struggles to get Crusoe to the Loch. As in all good fables, a lesson is included: Crusoe helps Angus to confront his fears, and the boy helps his friend the sea monster survive in wartime waters.

From the opening shots of the Scottish landscape to the interiors of the castle, cinematographer Oliver Stapleton has done a stunning job, creating a scenic fairy tale. Coupled with a solid screenplay that generates both humor and suspense, “The Water Horse” is a film that will charm a preteen audience as well as adults.

Kevin Doherty can be contacted at; Joseph Cunneen is at

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2008

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: