Wordless wonder

Sally Potter renders the theatrical portraits of four World War II refugees.

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British filmmaker Sally Potter’s work (Orlando, The Tango Lesson), is often more intellectual than emotional. Nonetheless, she writes of “the deep pleasures of the cinema,” referring to the medium’s cumulative effect on the viewer. When a film really works, it becomes more than the sum of its parts (those which can be broken down through critical analysis) and manages to strike a deep, intangible chord. Potter doesn’t achieve that with The Man Who Cried, in large part because the film feels fragmented, merely a series of tableaux. Each may be done with painterly aplomb, but the film falters when these gorgeously composed individual scenes don’t flow into an organic whole.

Suzie (Christina Ricci) begins her life in a Russian shtetl, where she grows up loving nature and the music sung by her father, a cantor whose soothing voice lulls her into happy dreams. But after her father leaves for America, the little girl’s life is thrown into turmoil. The village is attacked and she flees with other youngsters, eventually finding herself in an England which offers safety but little succor. (In this sequence, the Yiddish dialogue isn’t subtitled, which only heightens the child’s perspective of events she can’t quite understand.)

So Suzie learns to keep her eyes open and her mouth shut. That is, unless she’s singing, a skill which eventually leads her to a Paris cabaret. Unfortunately, it’s the 1930s and the Jewish identity Suzie’s been taught to suppress becomes a dangerous secret as the Nazis begin their sweep of Europe. At this pivotal moment in history, she becomes involved with three other exiles: blond bombshell Lola (Cate Blanchett), who used her looks to escape Russia and poverty; Dante (John Turturro), an Italian opera singer who’s tied his fortunes to Mussolini; and Cesar (Johnny Depp), a gypsy whose sense of community is heightened by ostracism.

This four actors are so good that they diminish the awkwardness of their various accents, making their characters resound through the use of constant chatter (Blanchett and Turturro) or profound silence (Ricci and Depp, a more compelling couple here than in the misguided Sleepy Hollow). Potter has sketched the characters as archetypes, but the quartet fleshes them out beautifully, each adding another bold choice to their already impressive array of performances.

Nearly every scene in The Man Who Cried is visually remarkable and some are magical. (The men in Potter’s film are all driven to moments of intense vulnerability, while the women must discover their own strength.) Working with the gifted cinematographer Sacha Vierny (a regular collaborator of Peter Greenaway, Alain Resnais and Raul Ruiz), Potter uses remarkable gradations of color to make the film stock go from silvery tones to saturated hues. In the shtetl scenes, the textures are so realistic that reaching out and touching the pine trees feels possible. At other times, Potter seems to use Paris as a grand stage set, as in the majestic sequence when Depp and his companions ride horseback through the eerily empty streets with Ricci in pursuit on her bicycle.

Much thought has gone into The Man Who Cried, and the effort shows, but what is ultimately the point of this expertly composed but unfulfilling exercise? Potter clearly wants to point out the ways in which domineering societies strip minorities of their identities, creating a worldwide culture of refugees. But where does Suzie fit in? As good as Ricci is, this resilient victim of history remains an elusive cipher, the vessel for a filmmaker’s political agenda, who — despite the irrepressible music in her soul — never manages to sing her own song.

Opens June 15 exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

Visit the official The Man Who Cried Web site at http://www.uip.com/themanwhocried.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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