It is one of the ironies of my life that some of the movies I consider my favourite are also the ones I’m least able to watch. Obviously, this has nothing to do with the quality of the movie, unless it falls into the so awful it’s a masterpiece category, it’s their emotional impact that prohibits multiple viewings.
One of the movies that I find hardest to watch, even though I consider it beautiful, is Sally Potter’s The Man Who Cried Poignant, bittersweet; pick any one of the usual clichéd adjectives you want and it still falls short of capturing the atmosphere generated by this film.
Perhaps it’s the plot that does it to me. Not that it’s all that original: young girl sets out to find father who has immigrated to America sounds like the story line from any Disney movie. What distinguishes The Man Who Cried from your standard movie of the week are the time period of the movie, the cast, and most of all Sally Potter’s ability to avoid the pitfalls of cheap sentimentality and emotional manipulation.
The movie spans fourteen of some of the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century, and countries on three continents. It starts in the shetels, Jewish farming communities, of Russia in 1927 and ends in the United States in 1940. The physical journey corresponds to the journey of growing up that the lead character experiences on her quest to find her father.
Young Susie (not the character’s real name, but the one she is given by the immigration people in England when she lands there unable to speak anything but Yiddish) has a wonderful life with her father and grandmother. Her father is a singer, both secular and religious, who sings to her constantly. The bond between the two is beautifully depicted, through the pleasure that each derives from the other’s company.
Shortly after Papa leaves Susie is forced to flee with two boys only slightly older than herself during a pogrom. They eventually make a port town where Susie is separated and ends up alone on a ship heading to England. The image of a small child, clutching a photo of her father, sitting bolt upright on a bed in the steerage hold of a ship epitomises the anguish of refugees the world over.
In England, a teacher of Welsh origins discovers her inherited talents as a singer. He takes it upon himself to help the young girl to assimilate. His sympathy to her plight is made obvious when he is shown forcing her to speak English, and he blurts out: “They wouldn’t let me speak Welsh”
It’s her talent that takes her on the next stage of her journey. She is hired to be a singer and dancer for a club in Paris with hopes of raising the fare for passage to America through the job so that she can find her father. But this is Paris in late 1939 and the fortunes of the world are swinging heavily against Jewish people.
It’s through her nightclub job that she meets the three people who will have the biggest impact on her life in Paris, and who will ultimately decide her fate. Lola, an expatriate Russian dancer and gold digger; Dante Dominio, an Italian opera singer, fascist supporter, and egotist; and Cesar, the leader of a band of gypsies.
By throwing herself at Dante, Lola gets herself and Susie parts in the chorus of the opera company that Dante is staring with. Cesar has been hired by the same company to ride a horse onto stage. While Lola ingratiates herself with the upper crust Dante, Susie falls in love with Cesar.
When the inevitable happens and the German’s show up in Paris, it’s Lola who manages to secure passage for herself and Susie out of France on a passenger liner heading to the United States. Susie wants to stay with her beloved Cesar, but he insists it’s her duty to run and survive so that she can be reunited with her father. Just as it’s his duty to stay and fight for his people.
For a movie like this to escape being sentimental claptrap it requires superb direction, and an exemplary cast. The Man Who Cried is blessed with both. Christina Ricci as Susie, Cate Blanchett as Lola, John Turturro as Dante, and Johnny Depp as Cesar are all wonderful in bringing their characters to life. From their use of accents, to the behaviour and reactions of their characters, none of them ever strikes a false note.
Sally Potter never once allows them to go beyond what is needed to convey the power of a scene. While there are many opportunities for over the top scenery chewing performances, she ensures that everything is kept within the bounds of reality.
What makes this movie most powerful is it’s ability to create moments of universality; moments that everybody can identify with on an emotional level. Even if we have never experienced the situations that the characters find themselves in, we are able to identify with the emotions the characters are experiencing.
How often have you seen an emotionally charged movie where the music has been used to manipulate your feelings: swelling strings are an indication of love blooming, trumpet blasts and drums mean danger, and so on. The producers of those films appear to have so little faith in the emotional strength of their features that they have to build in cues for the audience to tell them when to feel things.
The sound track of The Man Who Cried is part of the action of the movie. At certain times a song is played in the background of the action, but it is a piece of music we have seen performed earlier, and it’s being used to evoke that earlier scene. The music provides an emotional link between the past and the present. It’s as if Ms. Potter is reminding us that the only soundtrack that comes with our lives, is the one we create ourselves.
One of the great treats of this movie is the fact that the fabulous gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks appears on screen as the troop traveling with Johnny Depp’s character Cesar. There are two marvellous scenes in the movie when we get to experience the excitement of watching them perform. Since a couple of the older members have died since the movie’s release in 2000, this remains one of the few film records of them performing.
This is a movie about survival, and how people somehow manage to gather the strength and courage to go on living no matter how devastated they feel or how little hope they may have in success. In A Man Who Cried it’s about a young Jewish woman looking to be reunited with her father and survive the terrors of a world gone mad. In today’s world Susie could be any young woman from a war torn country in the Balkans or Africa.
This is a beautiful movie that deals with highly emotional subject matter without once attempting to overtly manipulate our emotions or descending into cheap sentimentality. Moving and very human I recommend it highly for anyone desiring insight into the plight of refugees the world over.