What movies can do

Jamal (Dev Patel, left) rises
Slumdog Jamal (Dev Patel, left) rises


Five years ago the big news in movies was The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s ambitious, gory, controversial and hugely successful portrayal of Jesus’ last 12 hours before his crucifixion. That project was the talk of the town.

Gibson has since slipped off the movie-business radar. His next project after Passion was Apocalypto, an ambitious, gory, controversial and mildly successful portrayal of the passing of ancient South America. After that? Not a lot.

 The Passion of the Christ has followed the typical movie route into DVD rentals, except that some churches, in the weeks before Easter, pull their copy off the library shelf for special showings. But the bold predictions when it first appeared – dire warnings of how the film would fuel anti-Semitism with its portrayal of Jewish complicity in Jesus’ execution, as well as glowing promises among some Christians that the movie would lead people to embrace their faith – did not come to pass.

Is there a lesson here? Maybe just that while well-made movies can move us to think or prompt us to talk about the most important issues in our lives, by themselves they don’t have the power to convert individuals or shift society. Mass media are powerful but not all powerful.

The story line and expectations aren’t so grand for this year’s leading contenders for Best Picture award, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire. Yet, these fables have still set people talking about Big Questions.

Button is the sprawling epic of a New Orleans man born with an old man’s body who ages backwards. As his body “youthens” and his mind (and spirit?) matures, we follow his life through his adventures, some of them literally sea-going, and his one great love.

Slumdog follows Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a barely educated chai wallah, or tea server, at a customer service call center who has a shot at winning the grand jackpot on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Through flashbacks, we discover that he can answer the questions because of his harrowing upbringing in the Mumbai slums.

They are very different movies, of course: set on different continents, in different times, with entirely different approaches to the storytelling. But they also share much. At their core they are touching love stories, portraying relationships in which “love endures all things,” to use a biblical phrase.

Both also deal with the role of fate or destiny, but their answers are sharply different and surprising.

Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) youthens
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) youthens

The destiny of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is sealed by a biological quirk, and a clock is literally ticking in this story. We watch to see what Mr. Button does with his time. Despite happy interludes, high adventure and passionate love, his story turns out to be ultimately tragic.

By contrast, Slumdog Millionaire is a story of choices and possibilities, even though Jamal’s destiny seems to be written from the start. Despite the squalor, heartache and brutality played out on the screen, this movie is actually a comedy in the classic sense. As a few reviewers have noted, underneath the skin of this Bollywood-inspired tale beats the heart of a classic rags-to-riches, feel-good – some say, American Hollywood – story.

Here’s the paradox: Who would have expected that the movie set in bright, exciting 20th century America would turn out to be the sadder story in the end? Slumdog Millionaire hits the moviegoer from the first scene with searing pain and seemingly endless despair. Modern India’s tensions serve both as backdrop and as focal point. The contrast between terrible poverty and unimaginable wealth is only the start. (It’s no accident that the main characters are Muslims making their way in a Hindu-dominated society.)

Yet it is Slumdog that ends with triumph, optimism and a very cool dance number. In fact, that joyful release at the end (memories of college dredge up the word “catharsis”) wouldn’t feel nearly as powerful or even make sense without the high-stakes story of loss and struggle that came before. Tears stay for a time, the movie says, but joy comes in the morning.

A trip to the multiplex probably isn’t going change anyone’s life, but as far as movies go, that’s not a bad idea to walk out with. It’s worth an eight-buck ticket.