KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (not rated, R): Shortly before the Third Crusade, Balian (Orlando Bloom), a French blacksmith, mourns his deceased wife (Nathalie Cox). On the day of her burial, Godfrey (Liam Neeson) arrives and identifies himself as Balian’s real father. Godfrey invites Balian to come back to Jerusalem with him to support the European king of the city, Baldwin (Edward Norton).
In Jerusalem, Balian sees Christians and Muslims living peacefully together. But Knights Templar Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald (Brendan Gleeson) want to provoke a war with the Muslims for their own gain. When King Baldwin dies, de Lusignan and Reynald attack the Muslims. Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), in turn, comes with a mighty army from Damascus to attack Jerusalem. Balian is forced into a leadership role and faced with momentous decisions that involve his conscience, soul and military ability.
This fairly accurate “sword epic” about the Crusades, by famed director Ridley Scott, is a thinking person’s movie. The Crusades (1096–c.1300) have an incredibly complex history and, for most of us, the facts remain obscure. (The film made me want to do some research, so I read Karen Armstrong’s Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World. Though repetitious, it provided a context for a greater understanding of the events, issues and motivations for the Crusades.)
Some of the story about Balian is fictionalized. For example, his early history is based on a crusader named Conrad of Montferrat, and his relationship with Sibylla (Eva Green) most certainly did not occur. But Balian did save Jerusalem and most of the inhabitants through the terms he made with Saladin, though somewhat differently than shown. The film’s portrayal of Saladin’s fine character and actions is quite accurate; in another world, he and Balian would have been friends who respected one another.
Though we’ve had many epic films in recent months, this one is different for two reasons: It is about the Crusades and it is relevant. It offers a contemporary social and political commentary that asks what Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Heaven, in reality and as symbol, really mean to viewers today. Screenwriter William Monahan has Balian making brief speeches throughout about the value of conscience and a person’s character, the role of religion and the idiocy of preemptive war.
Hundreds of years later, we have not yet learned that dialogue and negotiation form the way to peace, especially among the three monotheistic religions of the world. Intense battlefield violence and preachy but well worth the viewing.
THE INTERPRETER (A-3, PG-13): In Matobo, Africa, two men are ambushed and killed when they go to a deserted stadium to find victims of President Zuwanie’s (Earl Cameron) genocide. Only a photographer (Yvan Attal) survives by hiding.
In New York, the General Assembly of the United Nations wants to try Zuwanie for crimes against humanity at The Hague. Zuwanie’s representatives, however, demand that Zuwanie be permitted to come to the United Nations to explain and defend his actions.
Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) is an interpreter who speaks Ku, the language of Matobo, because she was raised there. When she returns to the interpreter’s booth for the things she left behind during a safety evacuation, she overhears a whispered conversation stating that there will be an assassination attempt on Zuwanie when he comes to address the United Nations.
Silvia reports the conversation, and Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) is assigned to assess the credibility of the threat. All forms of communication will be interpreted, rightly or wrongly. By weaving one fictitious country’s tragedy with the personal tragedies of the two main characters, it becomes possible to imagine the consequences of power that corrupts and love that never ends.
This is the first movie ever to be filmed in the United Nations headquarters in New York. It is directed with skill by Sydney Pollack. Though the credits are top-heavy with five names for the story and screenplay, something that usually spells disaster for a movie, the film held my attention from the opening scenes to the end, from whisper to whisper. This swirling political thriller will please fans of the genre; strong language and violence.
SAHARA (A-3, PG-13): Underwater explorer Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) and his sidekick, Al Giordino (Steve Zahn), successfully recover a sunken historical treasure off the coast of West Africa for NUMA’s (National Underwater Marine Agency) cigar-smoking Admiral Jim Sandecker (William H. Macy). When Pitt learns that a rare Confederate coin has been found, indicating the presence of a lost ironclad ship from the Civil War somewhere in the Sahara, he is determined to find it.
Sandecker allows Pitt and Giordino to use his prized smaller boat to go up the Niger River to find the lost ship and supposed treasure. They take along Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz), a doctor from the World Health Organization, and her colleague, who are trying to locate the source of a plague in a small dictator-run country upriver.
After putting Rojas and her companion onshore to cross the desert on camels, Pitt and Giordino realize that Dr. Rojas is heading for trouble. Thus, they obtain camels so they can cross the desert to help her.
If popular Westerns could be called “horse operas,” then Sahara qualifies as a “camel opera.” It is based on one of the many adventure novels by Clive Cussler.
There’s only one line in the film that moved its premise beyond the popcorn for me: when the dictator said it didn’t matter if the pollution contaminated Africa and the ocean because “no one cares about Africa anyway.” Given the situation of war and starvation in the Sudan and the AIDS pandemic that First World countries are doing very little to address, his words seem true enough. Action violence, genocide and some problem language.
GREY’S ANATOMY (ABC, Sundays): ABC seems to have another ratings winner to add to its Sunday-night lineup with this story of a group of new surgical interns at a Seattle hospital. They struggle with their own flawed humanity and poor choices while learning to recognize human dignity and understand ethics—for themselves and with their patients. The themes, so far, have dealt with Alzheimer’s disease, the truth that each patient is a real person, organ donation, honesty and responsibility.
Anatomy engages the thoughtful viewer’s moral imagination on many levels: personal, social and medical. Let’s hope that as the characters mature they will integrate their personal and professional lives in freedom and responsibility.
POPE JOHN PAUL II, MAN OF THE ARTS: Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) was both a writer and the subject of many films. Although they may be difficult to obtain, they are worth noting.
Two of his plays were made into films. The Jeweller’s Shop (1988), directed by Michael Anderson (The Shoes of the Fisherman) and starring Burt Lancaster, reveals much about the writer’s hopeful view of the sacrament of marriage. Our God’s Brother (1997), directed by Polish Catholic Krzysztof Zanussi, focuses on Adam Chmielowski, the 19th-century Polish painter who gave up a promising career to serve God (not released in the United States).
Films about the late pontiff include From a Far Country (1981), Pope John Paul II (1984) and The Millennial Pope: John Paul II (1999). St. Francis Bookshop, your local Catholic bookstore or www.amazon.com can help on these and other titles.