To release a film about the Crusades right now, in the midst of our own ongoing imperialistic slaughter, would mean either revisiting the bloody trenches for head-shaking revisionism or fashioning a bloodthirsty Hollywood epic with built-in Middle East villainy. Leave it to Ridley Scott to swing both ways, his Kingdom of Heaven daintily pointing out contemporary relevance while giving audiences all the commercial, viscera-soaked Gladiator jollies they came for. Right off the bat, Scott's lab-prettification is already in full sail, a corpse's pale-blue skin but one element in an overworking mise-en-scène where dusk light, gently falling snowflakes and looming cross props suggest the sheen of $2-million-a-second ads. The time is 1184, and the body belongs to the suicidal wife of blacksmith Orlando Bloom, and as good a reason as any to have him hairy and dour, toiling amid molten irons and flames. (Orlando Bland once again as armored he-man -- his feyness could point to an interesting demasculinization of heroism if it were acknowledged rather than evaded.) Either way, up the French countryside comes wandering Baron Liam Neeson for the ol' I-raped-your-ma family reunion, inviting Bloom to join him in his journey to the "new world" of Jerusalem.
After burning down his place (with a slimy priest used as fuel for the bonfire), Bloom accepts. No time for father-son bonding, though-- the first of the film's clankering melees claims Neeson, but not before he's given our hero both his knighthood, and his mission of uniting a holy city where Christian and Muslim can pray side by side. A shipwreck later and Bloom finds himself in an outtake from Lawrence of Arabia, finally entering a CGI-enhanced Jerusalem where leprosy-ravaged Catholic king Baldwin IV (a silver visage sporting Edward Norton's disembodied, weirdly Brandoesque whine) holds a shaky truce with Muslim ruler Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). Riding his papa-warrior's name, Bloom's spot in court is guaranteed, the main heir to the city, the armies commanded by weary Jeremy Irons, and the hand of hot-pants princess Eva Green. Still, he's happy to just sit under a palm tree for Scott's circling camera, until Marton Csokas and Brendan Gleeson, rotten-apples in the benign Western bunch, shatter the peace and Bloom must don helmet and shield to protect Jerusalem from the Muslim armies is outside. Defeat is in order, though, as in last year's Alamo fiasco, rationalization washes the blood out of our hands ("We fight over an offense we did not give, against those who were not alive to be offended," Bloom tells his forces).
Not that Scott and screenwriter William Monahan vilify the Muslims: Saladin is cautiously portrayed as a dignified, humane warrior, to the point of picking up an overturned cross following victory. "To kill an infidel is not murder. It's the path to Heaven," foams a fervid-eyed crusader; later surveying a buzzard-filled panorama of rotting fighters, Irons murmurs something about fighting being all about "wealth and land." Yes, the links between the 12th-century carnage waged in God's name and the Iraq invasion are on the screen for all to see (just count the number of times The Prez evokes divine support in his smite-the-terrorists orations), yet Kingdom of Heaven retains the easy Us Vs. Them airbrushing expected from the guy responsible for the aestheticized, guilt-free pyrotechnics of Black Hawk Down. (Verhoeven's Flesh & Blood at least caught the barbaric grime that passed for moral action in the medieval times.) Spectacle sweep became Oliver Stone's inquiring arsenal in last year's misunderstood Alexander, but none of that wound-poking for Sir Ridley's blockbuster -- the movie's intelligence level is on par with a Star Wars installment, complete with Jedi mentor, hushed mask removal and Green, an exquisite amalgam of Nouvelle Vague gals in The Dreamers, here made to watch the men go about their manly business from afar. (From Anna Karina to Amidala?) A crime: all of Green's sexy bits reportedly got scissored, but I'm betting all the arrow-through-throat battlefield money shots are intact -- inhumanly ravishing, as usual.
The Lord works in more mysterious ways in the somber-deadpan-lyrical Argentinean import La Niña Santa -- namely, a middle-aged hard-on rubbing against a jailbait bystander. The meek molester is married doctor Carlos Belloso, one of the medical professionals swarming about the convention at a rundown hotel; the groped one is the titular holy girl (Maria Alché), a sullen adolescent making her way through the twin mysteries of spiritual confusion and bludgeoning sexuality. The meeting takes place at the siren call of an impromptu theremin performance, which to Alché, a Catholic student with a sudden lopsided grin, is enough to signal the "calling" of God, with herself as a sinner's earthly salvation. It's to the credit of director Lucrecia Martel that the catalyst that brings the two together is as wryly oblique as the other drama strands unfurling gracefully in and out of the narrative, an uncle (Alejandro Urdapilleta) with a runaway wife in Chile, or a reading class peer (Julieta Zylberberg) who solves the virgin dilemma with some practical butt-fucking. Most notable, however, is the flirtation tentatively flowering between Alché's comely, former swimming champion divorcee mom (Mercedes Morán) and Belloso, who has by now become the unwitting object of obsession of her humid daughter.
Steeped in more plot than in her debut La Ciénaga, Martel operates in similarly dreamy mosaic form, the daily and the extraordinary molded via fragments of scenes seen and accumulated -- a silent maid spraying rooms, a thud heard outside religion class and a naked guy stumbling in. Subtly feminine where the oppressive pizzazz of Scott's work (or, for that matter, of City of God, a cruder but more acclaimed staple of the recent Latin American cinema boom) is blowhard masculine, La Niña Santa is also a much more pointed view of confused religiosity. Where Kingdom of Heaven timidly scolds church-sponsored killing while trawling on cathedral lighting over every shot, Martel's examination of vocation and temptation is claustrophobically, delicately comic, imperceptibly building up a devastating portrayal of spiritual limbo amidst a gradually disorientated reality. Fittingly, the senses play major roles in the filmmaker's cosmic aesthetic -- surfaces felt with fingertips, a hearing test gone bad in a sound booth, shaving cream furtively smeared on a schoolgirl's lapel to feel the scent of a man, and, above all, spirituality and sexuality made all but visible to the characters and the audience. As densely provocative as Bruno Dumont's, Martel's is a career to watch.
Reviewed May 12, 2005.