Four Funerals and a Wedding

Here Comes the (Burning) Bride: Shabana Azmi finds forbidden love in Fire.

Guantanamera
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday, December 19

Fire
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

SOME STORIES ARE old and tired, and some are merely tried and true. Take for example the tale of Transporting The Corpse: From William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying to Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train, the corpse as McGuffin has worked narrative wonders. It's a simple premise, a body needs to be transported to its burial site, and a simple conflict, the journey is long and fraught with setbacks and hazards. Can the corpse be laid to rest before it starts to rot? There is almost no way this premise can fail to compel, and so it is that director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea might be accused of stacking the deck in his own corpse-toting film, Guantanamera. But the singularly light and melancholy tale that Alea delivers is equal parts valentine and eulogy: The Cuban director, best known in America for the bittersweet romance Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), died after finishing Guantanamera.

It is tempting to lump Alea together with other South American creative minds and then announce that these folks do the subject of romance very well. A gross generalization, of course, but there's no denying that the ancient lovers who begin this film make a touching pair, like the old couple in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love In the Time Of Cholera. As opera music plays on an antique gramophone surrounded by a pile of sepia-toned photographs, Yoyita and her lover Candido reunite after a 50-year separation. She blissfully closes her eyes, puts her head on the shoulder she has longed for almost her whole life, and...expires. It's over the top, amusing as hell, and deliciously tragic.

These delicate sentiments are contrasted with the petty, ridiculous inefficiencies of the socialist bureaucracy as the district's official undertaker, Adolfo, whose dispirited wife, Georgina (Martha Ibarra), is Yoyita's niece, attempts to transport the corpse back to Havana. Adolfo's motives are less than pure: He wants to implement his new "caravan" method of corpse carting, thereby sharing the gas bill equally among the country's districts and returning him to Party favor. Georgina, a former economics professor, has more sense, compassion, and courage than her sourpuss apparatchik husband, and if that's not enough she has a smile that lights up the world. Again and again, throughout this romantic comedy/road movie, the story seems to freeze while Georgina smiles in various combinations of light and shadow. When she finally finds a man who appreciates her, the sky breaks into a refreshing rainstorm and Georgina's happiness beams through the mist. The actress Martha Ibarra, it turns out, was Alea's wife. She's lost her husband now, but what a love letter he wrote her in the leaving.

Another seemingly old story is what one might call the Tale of Two Women. Smothered by the patriarchy, they find freedom and self-awareness through love for one another. This one actually seems like a chestnut--and maybe a moldy one--to the jaded Western consumer, incapable after so many applications of raising an eyebrow north of the Mason-Dixon line. Deepa Mehta's film Fire, by contrast, nearly caused a riot at its premiere in India.

"I had never seen so many explosive males and so many jubilant women in one place," Mehta writes of the post-screening melee, "all ready to have a fistfight in order to support their view of Fire." The police arrived and tempers cooled, but not before one gentlemen had turned to Mehta and calmly uttered the phrase, "I am going to shoot you, madam."

Back in the West, Fire can only warm, not burn. Images of women proving their purity by walking through flames can't possibly be as resonant to a college girl at the Lagoon as it would be to a university girl in New Delhi. While the stateside sisterhood has plenty to abhor, India still has suttee, the practice of burning widows and brides whose virginity or dowry isn't quite as advertised, and it smolders beneath this dramatic comedy like glowing embers. The two Sapphic heroines here are not necessarily risking death, but scalding censure certainly awaits them. This is a world where young men may tool about on their motor scooters to visit their modern mistresses, while their wives are frowned upon if they so much as leave the house for any destination other than to market.

In the Indian marketplace, Fire, like Mira Nair's Kama Sutra, turned such controversy into rupees. Here, the sometimes stilted, declarative dialogue is only made palatable by Shabana Azmi, the preeminent actress in India, whose eyes and mouth invest her words with a specificity the script lacks. It is her watchful, intelligent face that gives the American audience a sense of a world where women are expected to walk through flames to prove their purity, and then are cast into exile anyway for having allowed any sliver of doubt.

 
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