Let the Trumpet Sound

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Directed by Martin Ritt

Sounder is one of the greatest films ever made in this country, but guardians of film culture repeatedly choose to overlook it. That is, until the 1972 film shows this weekend (April 29-30) at the Tribeca Film Festival. Call its revival long overdue, perfect timing for a hopeless age, or the most worthwhile movie event of the spring. By any means necessary, see it.

Though it's strange for a film of this caliber to be relegated to a film festival's "family movies" section (perhaps a better positioning for The Godfather), that pigeonholing may explain Sounder's harsh neglect. Based on an award-winning children's book named after the pet dog owned by a family of black sharecroppers in Depression-era Louisiana, Sounder's emotional values stand in striking contrast to this week's trendy premieres, the Argentinian dysfunctional-family drama The Holy Girl and the French pampered-youth character study A Tout de Suite (see below). These movies shrewdly appeal to the young-adult audience's vain sense of worldliness, but Sounder reveals the world through heartening, domestic subject matter. Anyone who thinks they're above this has not understood how Sounder's classically simple story was transformed by its director, Martin Ritt.

Once a blacklisted actor, Ritt is best known for switching careers and becoming a director of the adult dramas The Long Hot Summer, Hud, Hombre and Norma Rae. After several early-70s flops, Ritt seized the opportunity to work for children's-film producer Robert Radnitz. Free to pursue his humanitarian convictions without succumbing to the box-office trend of blaxploitation, Ritt elevated Sounder so far above its apparent genre that just last year the popsters at Entertainment Weekly cluelessly described it as an animal-lovers' tearjerker.

Sounder is the most profoundly accomplished movie of Ritt's career. Accustomed to the studio style of big-name actors and a grandiloquent, widescreen format, Ritt simplified his technique. Key roles of the Morgan family were embodied by then little-known actors-father Nathan Lee (Paul Winfield), mother Rebecca (Cicely Tyson) and their son David (Kevin Hooks). The script was written by screenwriter Lonne Elder III, whose Off-Broadway landmark Ceremonies in Dark Old Men was a respected hit Off-Broadway in 1969. Thus, everything feels fresh, but Sounder never received adequate credit. (Oscar nominations for Best Film, Actor, Actress and Screenplay, but no wins. Oscar's favorite that year, the irresistibly lurid and violent The Godfather, changed movie history-perhaps not for the better.)

Ritt and cinematographer John Alonzo created gently encompassing and meaningful landscapes: As the Morgans walk home from a softball game, they pass a segregated white church whose intimidating structure gleams in the background. (Blues musician Taj Mahal gets off a keen riposte.) Through such imagery, Ritt and Elder's politics seem purified into naturalism. This American family drama has a visual clarity more in tone with such humanist European landmarks as De Sica's The Bicycle Thief and Renoir's Toni as well as Pather Panchali by Indian master Satyajit Ray. The rarity of such achievement may account for the antipathy of contemporary critics and curators. More than a decade later, the cognoscenti praised East Village hipster Jim Jarmusch's pared-down sensuality in Stranger Than Paradise. It began the disaffection of modern cinema, whereas Ritt's subtle technique is always elegant, exuberant. The famous homecoming scene where the father returns from prison (after stealing a ham to feed his starving family) pulses with each character's expression of strong emotion, culminating in an unforgettable icon: Nathan Lee's arms stretch across the breadth of the CinemaScope screen ,embracing his entire family.

This is good sentiment. Ritt and Elder exude affection while examining the taboo subject of American poverty, but they do so without the liberal condescension so long admired in the James Agee-Walker Evans book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Ritt set a new standard-compassionately, but based on the urgent need that swept across the U.S. during the Civil Rights protests and riots of the 60s. Sounder dares to test liberalism and find it wanting. It's one thing for Renoir to assert loving insight; an American humanist has to divine the soul while critiquing political action. One great, complex sequence shows Mrs. Boatwright (Carmen Matthews), the white woman who hires Rebecca to do laundry, failing to get help from the hard-hearted sheriff. "You can't say I didn't try," she laments, but the sense of futility weighs on her face. When she visits the Morgans the next day with a map to outline the route to the prison where Nathan is held, Mrs. Boatwright's geography (her political foresight) proves pitifully shaky. Better than all of Driving Miss Daisy, this moment epitomizes the uncertainty of the white-black civil rights alliance. "That's all right," Rebecca assures her. "When the time comes we'll get there." That's Lonne Elder's recognition that the weight of the Struggle-the achievement of the Civil Rights social promise-rested on black folks' self-determination.

Sounder's political sophistication becomes sweetly apparent in the metaphor of David's lonely journey to find his sequestered father. Here the film reaches two empathetic peaks: first when David discovers a progressive classroom and defends a scared student, then when the teacher, Camille Johnson (Janet MacLachlan), presents him with books including W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folks, which she has committed to oral tradition. (Pauline Kael praised Sounder as "the birth of black consciousness on the screen," but it actually remains the finest testament of Hollywood's black consciousness.) Faith in education makes Sounder seem out of fashion today. David's reaching toward the world outside his Louisiana parish is unconnected to careerism. His father memorably outlines it as a way to "beat the death they got laid out for you."

Welcome Sounder to the pantheon. It's a reminder of what unites us as moviegoers and a species.

The Holy Girl

Directed by Lucrecia Martel

a Tout de Suite

Directed by Benoit Jacquot

Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel could be a teen lifestyles magazine editor. Her protagonist Amalia (Maria Alche) is a photogenic skeptic, modeling curly-haired agnosticism. She huddles with her schoolgirl friends whispering about the sex life of their choir teacher. Amalia herself is superstitious about sex, religion and her own body. She lets her male cousin sodomize her as a way of staying "virginal." (Martel's idea of wit is to show the butt fuck following a discussion of medical procedures.)

Though not as egregiously sacrilegious as Joshua Marston's pseudo-political Maria Full of Crap, Martel's has distinctive visual expressions of skepticism. Her corner-of-the-eye compositions convey each character's furtive amorality-mocking Bresson's spiritual displacement. Martel's Catholic manques (including Mercedes Moran as Amalia's hot-pants divorced mother) obsess over sin and disease. It's a dead-pan comedy about our corruptible sexual nature; a defeatist vision.

Defeat is also the theme of Benoit Jacquot's A Tout de Suite, which follows a French girl's (Isild LeBesco) infatuated fling around the Mediterranean with a Moroccan thug (Ouassini Embarek). It's an overextended story of privilege with only one surprise: When another slumming white chick tells Isild, "You're bourgeois just like me," they're tickled by the realization. Both movies, the antithesis of tearjerkers, are of our times: fantasies of disconnection unfit for either children or adults.

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