As bad as it is, Mexican director Alfonso Arau’s A Walk in the Clouds is required viewing for those with an interest in the history of cinema. For Arau’s first Hollywood film remakes a minor classic, a formative work of Italian neorealism, Alessandro Blasetti’s Four Steps in the Clouds (Quattro passi fra le nuvole, 1942; Cesare Zavattini was one of the authors of the script). But the newer film, unlike the spare original, is a lavish romance; someone who made Like Water for Chocolate (1993) could not have done it differently. The alterations, though, are hard to digest. Whereas the traveling salesman whom Gino Cervi portrays in the Blasetti film returns to his wife with his heart intact, the one whom Keanu Reeves plays Arau conveniently annuls out of a marital mismatch so that the boy can remain with the girl who has captured his heart. In either version, after they meet on a bus the salesman accompanies the girl home as her “husband” in order to help her hide from her parents the fact that the baby she is carrying was conceived out of wedlock. Both times, the ambience of place—a simple farm in the original; a splendiferous vineyard and estate in the remake—causes the boy to tarry beyond the brief agreed-on stay prior to his “deserting” her. But while poor Paolo must return to reality after taking “four steps in the clouds,” lucky Paul gets to remain in his dream for the rest of his life. Thus does magic realism replace neorealism.
Forrest Gumpish, Arau’s film is therefore ridiculous, nearly mythologizing its handsome young hero while dottily lingering on a computer-enhanced landscape of the most fulsome physical beauty. (Emmanuel Lubezski is the color cinematographer; David Gropman, the production designer.) Two lousy performances, moreover, tear at the bewitchment: Giancarlo Giannini as the girl’s rude, arrogant father, and Anthony Quinn as his father, who—the old softie—helps the lovers along. Nearly endearing through long familiarity, Quinn’s fatuousness does light damage, and Quinn and Reeves share one inspired moment: an inharmonious duet, with their age difference—fifty years—nicely bridged by intoxicant; but Giannini’s melodramatic posturing is unbearable, especially when his rigid patriarch tearfully crumbles in a contrived parable about pride. Worse still is the extent to which Arau, a pro-Spanish, anti-Mexican Indian bigot, fondly indulges the rich, complacent, emptily aristocratic Napa Valley family, the Aragóns, which Giannini’s character heads. Nor do I care for the heady eroticism that Arau draws from grape harvest shenanigans, with girl and boy at one point frolicking about in a vat of the oozing fruit, especially since the couple never, well, couple. Absent real sex, the atmosphere is way overheated. How we want these children to stop sublimating and “get it on.”
The film, then, is a mirage of endless California dreaming. Formally, it is dreadful, both overcomposed and laden with tweaking reaction shots that slow the pace to that of sludge.
Yet amidst all these shortcomings the film does engage one issue. In 1944 Paul Sutton, highly decorated, returns home from the European arena. Shielding herself from war’s unpleasantness, Paul’s wife, Betty (Debra Messing, inept), has left unopened a cache of his letters—letters, she now learns from Paul, that are full of his plans for their peacetime life together; voluminous letters that, along with the simplest dreams they express, are what kept Paul sane amidst the horror and devastation of war. Images of this wartime experience of his, conflated with images of the orphanage he grew up in, along with his fear of losing Victoria, the girl from the bus, continue to stab Paul’s consciousness—shafts of memory rendered for us in desaturated color that comes very close to black and white. No wonder this boy is charmed by a place—glowing, tranquil, rarefied, remote—as seemingly out of time and apart from earth as the Aragóns’ estate is. It’s romance to him, so steeped in war has he lately been.
The hangover from war, then, is the one legitimate theme here. Victoria Aragón (lovely Spaniard Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, her acting hampered by her battle with English) tells Paul that he is the noblest person she has met. But in fact Paul is hiding inside this nobility of his, groping for an antidote to the ignobility with which war has confronted him. Thus he is drawn to Victoria, whose fetus, he tells her, is a miracle of new life. In this light, we understand that Paul’s impersonation is as much for himself as for his damsel in distress; for the pretense of being Victoria’s unborn child’s father becomes an acting-out of Paul’s consuming wish to reverse his own orphaned past and to resolve anxieties over an uncertain future. This wish, though, also terrifies Paul for holding out to him what may prove to be false hope; and so, although he reluctantly pursues it, prodded by Victoria’s grandparents, Paul much prefers instead the safe nobility that enforces his fidelity to a grossly unsympathetic spouse. Thus he engages Victoria at a self-protective remove, to which the spousal pretense lends a bit of irony. And when he challenges Victoria’s father to show his family his love for them, Paul is also challenging himself to come out of his own shell.
Inability to cope with life following combat service, once called shell shock, has since been renamed war psychosis, a post-traumatic stress disorder. (For a remarkable documentary look at the condition, consult John Huston’s 1946 Let There Be Light.) The fact of the matter is, however, that most combat veterans do cope, sometimes shakily, but with steady courage. I cannot praise Reeves enough for doing such justice to this aspect of his role. His is an almost unendurably moving performance, a tribute to all those countless veterans who, like Paul Sutton, uncomplainingly do all they can not to submit to war psychosis, silently determined to pay whatever price that coping with civilian life may require. I do not wish to be unfair, but, given the reactionary nature of so much of this film, I am inclined to dismiss as accidental the radical implications that arise in this single area. Indeed, does Arau even know that Paul’s heroic struggle to keep mentally afloat contests the U.S. myth that war duty is just a job from which, unless “weak” to begin with, one readily and easily moves on? (In an effort to preserve the myth, the U.S. government suppressed Huston’s Light for a quarter-century.) There is no reason that actor Reeves, himself a Canadian, should know this, either. However, I suspect that simply by pursuing the truth of the character it was his responsibility to play Reeves intuitively unearthed the larger context. What credit goes to the film should go to Reeves, not Arau.
Reeves clearly and cleanly conveys that, as civilian, Paul isn’t done with the war, nor is it yet done with him; nor have Paul’s prior problems vanished under the duress of his combat experience. Once again showing “courage under fire,” though, Sutton prevails. By provoking the release of Victoria’s father from the shell of a fear-ridden ego, Paul likewise effects his own release—and acquires a family, a home, and a peacetime purpose to boot. But before he and his future father-in-law reach their joint bounty, a sweeping fire teases them (and us) into believing that everything, including the vineyard, is lost—for Paul, a clarion call to redemptive action. Persevering, he finds life in the aftermath of fire, just as he does in the aftermath of war.
Reeves’s wonderful acting is to-the-bone. Sutton’s enforced ease as, beneath the surface, he goes about the challenging business of stabilizing a war-skewed soul all but hides his movement towards—this is the film’s core symbolism—the fire of grace. But we hear this struggle in the speech pattern that Reeves brings to Sutton: clipped, just shy of being brusque, yet now and then tinged with barely controlled emotion. (The same actor, this, who as Siddhartha in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, 1994, aptly spoke with the fluency of a river.) Thus is Sutton’s civilian round of combat, coping with life, waged behind a protective screen of nobility that is rendered transparent for us by an artist who, himself persevering, gives a patient, tenacious, cumulative performance. Kenneth Branagh is right about Reeves: “He just keeps getting better and better.”
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