Australian writer-director Bruce Beresford has made some fine films in his career, including Breaker Morant, Black Robe, and the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy. Paradise Road, nobly intended but banal and almost trite, is not one of them.
It’s not a bad film, just disappointing. Beresford’s World War Two-era tale concerns a group of women held at a Japanese prison camp in occupied Sumatra. The women—mostly English, Australian and Dutch—suffered starvation, disease, and savagery, yet fought hard to maintain the customs of civilization amid beastly conditions.
At the heart of the movie is a rarefied sort of choir. Two of the women, a trained musician called Adrienne Pargiter, and Protestant missionary, Margaret “Daisy” Drummond, form a “vocal orchestra” to help their former inmates pass the time. They didn’t teach the women folk songs or patriotic ditties. Rather, Pargiter (Glenn Close) and Drummond (Pauline Collins) painstakingly transcribed for voice classical instrumental pieces by composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms, and taught them to the a cappella ensemble. On Christmas Day, 1943, they gave their first concert, which included an ethereal version of the largo from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, used so powerfully in Beresford’s film (the soundtrack, performed by Holland’s Malle Babbe Women’s Choir, is available on Sony Classical).
We see the cruel Japanese soldiers stilled by the gorgeous music, and indeed it leads to a thread of human feeling between the captors and their prisoners. At a later concert, three Japanese officers even turn up to watch and applaud the women’s efforts. One of Paradise Road’s most rapturous moments occurs when a vicious sergeant leads Adrienne into the woods, where she assumes she will be beaten or raped. Instead he sings for her in Japanese, and asks her how he did.
The idea is that music, sweet music, provides the women with a sense of beauty, complex order, and glory that enables them to transcend the ugliness, chaos, and ignominy of their circumstances. Music is a language that speaks to the hearts of all people, Japanese and European, soldier and civilian, and our shared response to the presence of artistic beauty can be a humanizing thing.
Well and good, but how did such a profound theme turn into such a tiresome dirge of a film? This middlebrow movie has more in common with Mr. Holland’s Opus than with Playing for Time, the excellent television movie of some years back about a real-life chamber ensemble in a Nazi camp. Beresford’s screenplay gives surprisingly short shrift to the music, instead bogging down in needless exposition designed to introduce us to the rather schematic list of characters he has here.
Adrienne and Daisy come into focus more than any other women, but that’s not saying much. Beresford simply has too much going on to give much depth or dramatic shape to his material. He manages to show us scads of suffering—these gals are always getting whipped for something—and struggling for solace and redemption, but because we never really get to know the women intimately, it lacks emotional weight.
We long for deep philosophical conversations between the women about the meaning of music, or faith in God, or the temptation to despair or hatred, but the screenplay rarely ventures beyond the boundaries of banter and humdrum bromides. Despite its stellar cast, which includes Johanna Ter Steege as a Dutch nun and Frances McDormand doing a woeful German accent (think Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles), Paradise Road feels lightweight and irritatingly sentimental. Despite what surely must have been Beresford’s best efforts—he clearly put his heart into this film—a miraculous true story of endurance and spiritual triumph becomes a mere collage of “inspirational” cliches.
Orthodox Catholics may well be loath to say anything nice about the Walt Disney Company, purveyors of Priest, pushers of p.c. and vague New Agery in Pocahontas and The Lion King, and granter of health-care benefits to same-sex couples. I went into a screening of The Hunchback of Notre Dame last summer expecting the worst, particularly because Frollo, the villain of Victor Hugo’s novel, was a cleric.
The film had some liberals clucking that its tale of heroic virtue inherent in the outcast and the despised, versus the cruel rigidity of religious-minded authority, was Disney’s comment about the plight of homosexuals in contemporary American society. Maybe it’s because of low expectations, but I was astonished to find it not only a pro-Christian film, but one embodying (surely unintentionally) basic Catholic principles of sacramental theology. Now that Hunchback has been released on video, it bears a second viewing.
One major change Disney made from the Hugo novel was morphing Frollo from a cathedral archdeacon into a pious magistrate who, when the film opens, stands on the verge of dropping a deformed gypsy infant down a well. A kindly archdeacon—a Disney invention—appears on the scene, rebuking Frollo and ordering him to care for the child. Frollo names the boy Quasimodo, and installs him in the cathedral’s bell tower. He becomes the boy’s protector, but poisons the lad’s mind by teaching him that the world is a heartless place for one as ugly as he.
In the Disney version, Hugo’s tale showcases Christian humanism by demonstrating how the Holy Spirit works through the bent and the broken, and how we must show charity to the weak. And Frollo’s self-righteous character shows how the law without mercy can make a monster of even the most godly man.
When Esmeralda, the sassy gypsy girl, escapes into the cathedral to hide from Frollo, the archdeacon encourages her to do something unusual for a major Hollywood movie: He asks her to pray. While other petitioners are heard in the nave asking God for wealth and power, she prays only for the merciful protection of heaven. This recalls Luke, Chapter 18, which exalts the humble prayers of the outcast tax collector, who stood at the back of the temple asking only for mercy, over the prayers of the Pharisees.
The film sides with an implicitly Catholic vision of the divine in its emphasis on God’s presence in the physical beauty of Notre Dame cathedral. The magnificently detailed drawings of the great Gothic structure are among the finest animation ever committed to celluloid. We see impressive renderings of the statues of angels and the saints. We hear the timeless sonorities of Gregorian chant, see the dramatic glow of the candles among the shadows, admire the miraculously complex architecture, and, above all, behold the awe-inspiring stained-glass windows. All of this shows us that God is a deity who can and should be approached through the senses.
Contrast this with the hideous stark-ness of Frollo’s chamber, which, although he is surely Catholic (the story is set in pre-Reformation Paris), is denuded of any papist frippery. All he has adorning his room is a thin iron cross hung over a fireplace. His approach to God is abstract and coldly legalistic, without warmth, feeling, or empathy, for himself or anyone else. Indeed, the gaunt magistrate despises his own hidden lust for Esmeralda, and banishes from his sight anything provocative to the senses, whether it is the ugliness of Quasimodo or the feisty comeliness of the gypsy girl.
Mind you, nobody should go to a Walt Disney animated film expecting unsullied and well-developed religious truth, and for all I know, the studio did mean Hunchback to be a swipe at religious conservatives. Whatever its intention, Catholic parents can find much useful catechetical material in this popular film. And since your kids will, like all other red-blooded American children, watch the darn thing on video a couple hundred thousand times between now and Christmas, you may as well watch it with them. With a little adult guidance, young viewers might learn something about their faith.