By Leonard KladySomeone once pointed out that the very best films about war have an anti-war tilt. I’m sure there’s an exception but I can’t recall an unabashed flag waiver that gloried in combat that hasn’t soured over time. Even a picture such as Patton promotes the man as a modern warrior uniquely suited to the task while decrying the savagery and stupidity of the conflict that necessitates such a person.War films are an opportunity to grapple with good and evil under duress and two new films aptly reflect the breadth of possibilities the genre affords. A Very Long Engagement is set during the First World War and focuses on a young French woman’s insistence and perseverance to find her fiancÃ© who is presumed to have died in the trenches. It is a film of epic sweep, beautifully crafted and unstinting in its depiction of the horror all wrapped up in an essentially modest story.Chronologically closer is Hotel Rwanda, a ripped-from-the-headlines recollection of African civil war only a decade past. There is no worse form of combat for it pits brother against brother and, unlike the almost century old Engagement, is presented in an unfussy fashion whose still waters run extremely deep.Following on the colossal success of Amelie, filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet has adapted a novel rich in detail and slim on story. A Very Long Engagement is Mathilde’s (Audrey Tautou) tireless quest to find her lover Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) amid the carnage of war and its aftermath.Jeunet is a natural filmmaker who brings style and energy to every frame of film and there’s no question of his absolute command of the medium. He recreates the era down to the tiniest detail and no incident is too arcane to escape his attention. While the multiple story threads recall Rashoman, the collecting of clues and the rogue’s gallery of witnesses is cut from the same cloth as Citizen Kane and like that landmark film it’s a tour-de-force piece of filmmaking.With the exception of the film’s composer, all the key creative people from Amelie return for this tale of unrequited love. The challenge is more than simply setting the clock backward almost a century and begins with an entirely different color palette. Gone are the icy blues and greens of contemporary Paris and in their place are warm yellows and oranges, evoking a tintype memory of the past.One senses the Herculean effort of the design team led by Aline Bonetto as whole sections of Paris are vividly brought back to life. It’s juxtaposed with a painstaking evocation of the trenches that recalls Kubrick’s Paths of Glory but makes the earlier film’s milieu appear like a premier hotel. It’s a nightmarish vision dazzlingly captured by cameraman Bruno Delbonnel and paced with dizzying perfection by editor Herve Schneid.The film is a brilliant combination of state-of-the-art technical innovations and the sort of traditional attention to craft we associate with Hollywood’s bygone studio system. Ironically it took the French to revive an American legacy down to an extraordinary ensemble that’s the envy of anyone’s list of contract players. A Very Long Engagement mercilessly plays on sentiment with humor and bravura visual storytelling becoming important parts of a recipe that’s tasty, unique but ultimately thin on contemporary resonance.In stark contrast, Hotel Rwanda tears at one’s soul and its historic proximity can only fill one with shame that the wholesale genocide escaped one’s attention. The weight of the material and its emotional wallop necessitate simplicity in both the film’s dramatic arc and visual presentation.Set in the capital city of Kigali in 1994, the story centers on Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), manager of a four-star Belgian-owned hotel. When the country was granted independence in 1962, it was established as a Hutu republic with many from the minority Tutsi tribe fleeing to neighboring countries. However, the descendants of the refugee sect returned in 1990 to wrest power and one of the bloodiest civil wars of the century ensued.It is the calm before the storm and Paul, who’s married to a Tutsi woman, is cocooned to the imminent tragedy by the seeming security of the hotel’s orbit and an entrenched belief that reason trumps fanaticism. The slow peeling of the onion is most certainly an awakening but it’s also a testament to a human spirit whose decency truly becomes the cogent difference between survival and slaughter for hundreds of people.Though some exteriors were filmed in Rwanda, the production was based and predominantly filmed in South Africa. The recreation of the recent past with the extraordinary centerpiece of the Hotel Milles Collines is crucial to the film’s credibility. Production designers Tony Burrough and Johnny Breedt invoke an outpost with ties to a colonial lineage that’s deftly anachronistic to a struggling democracy’s present.Filmmaker Terry George’s prime thrust is to establish contrast with the most brutal aspects of Rwandan history set against an elegant, unrealistic bubble world. Cinematographer Robert Fraisse subtly layers the piece with slices of a slick, surreal environment with scant association to what’s beyond its walls. The more vital arena is shot in the cut-and-run style of cinÃ©ma vÃ©ritÃ© documentaries established in the 1960s and as the two meet, the pristine elements cannot be sustained. It is a visual invasion that effectively heightens the drama and Andrea Guerra’s virtually subliminal score rarely needs to ramp up the decibel level to underline the raw emotion.Anchored by an exceptionally nuanced performance by Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda places one in the face of evil without ever overstating its message. When the full force of man’s inhumanity shows itself the impact is devastating and honestly realized.
Written by Len Klady