Review: ‘Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power,’ starring Nina Menkes

October 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Nina Menkes in “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” (Photo by Hugo Wong/Kino Lorber)

“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power”

Directed by Nina Menkes

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power,” American filmmaker Nina Menkes and a group of filmmakers and film/culture experts (predominantly white, with some African American, Asians and Latinas) discuss how the male-dominated film industry affects the way that women are depicted on-screen in movies.

Culture Clash: The documentary shows examples of how the “male gaze” of male directors and other male filmmakers often portray women as sex objects instead of fully formed human beings.

Culture Audience: “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in filmmaking and seeing how misogyny and sexism against women are ingrained in many movies.

Nina Menkes looks at a photo still of “The Lady From Shanghai” star Rita Hayworth in “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” will undoubtedly make some viewers uncomfortable in how it clearly demonstrates why misogyny and the objectification of women in movies are so pervasive. This documentary should be required viewing for anyone who cares about how manipulated images in movies can play a role in enabling sexism against women in society. Although some people might be in denial about it, the fact is that movies have a great deal of influence in how people behave, how they want to be perceived, and how they treat other people in real life.

Directed by Nina Menkes, a filmmaker who often makes speaking appearances about sexism in cinema, “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” has interviews with several film experts, but the movie is also partially formatted like a university lecture, which might be somewhat of a turnoff to some viewers of this documentary. The movie’s lecture scenes (from Menkes’ presentation “Sex and Power, the Visual Language of Cinema”) were filmed at Walt Disney Modular Theater at the California Institute of the Arts. Menkes speaks on stage and shows several movie clips on a video projection screen as examples of how the “male gaze” in filmmaking has resulted in sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious ways of how women are exploited and objectified on screen.

And the images of women often are far from empowering: Women on camera in movies are all too often being portrayed as subservient to men or existing mainly to please men. With some exceptions, when men and women co-star in a movie together and get equal billing, the men usually get more dialogue and screen time than the women. And in non-pornographic movies, women are expected to get fully naked on camera a lot more than men are expected to get fully naked. Menkes and the documentary do not put the blame only on male filmmakers for perpetuating this type of sexism in cinema, because it’s pointed out that some female filmmakers are just as guilty of the same sexism against women.

The fact remains though that men are the majority of directors, cinematographers and editors: the three types of filmmaking jobs that have the most influence in how performers look on screen. And that’s why the term “male gaze” came into existence. Early on in “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power,” the phrase “male gaze” is defined for viewers who don’t know what it means in cinematic terms. Film theorist Laura Mulvey, who is interviewed in the documentary, is credited with being the first to coin the term “male gaze” in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

The “male gaze” is considered to be a cinematic angle or viewpoint where women are presented as mainly existing to be pleasurable, passive or inferior to men. This is not the same thing as appreciating a woman’s inner or outer beauty. The “male gaze” point of view specifically shows in subtle and obvious ways that the men in the movie have the most control and power, while the women in the movie are never the men’s equals.

Mulvey says in the documentary that when she was in college, she watched a lot of movies. And it dawned on her: “Part of my pleasure in all of this filmgoing was that I was watching these movies [like] a male spectator.” She saw that the women on screen were often presented to be looked at, but not really seen as equal to the men. That feeling of “to be looked at-ness” (a phrase that Mulvey also coined) was also part of Mulvey’s awakening to the practice of female objectification in movies.

California State University at Long Beach faculty member Rhiannon Aarons comments, “Even though Mulvey’s foundational work was written in the ’70s, we still totally normalize the male gaze in cinema. I think the majority of people don’t ever question that form of looking. It’s so normal. It’s like asking if a fish is wet.” Filmmaker/TV producer Joey Soloway (who identifies as non-binary) comments on “male gaze” sexism: “To name it, to show it, is something that I think can change the world.”

Award-winning filmmaker Eliza Hittman (whose directorial credits include 2017’s “Beach Rats” and 2020’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”) offers this perspective: “It’s not just optical. It’s perceptual.” She cites actor/director Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film “Lady in the Lake” (which has a main character showing misogynistic distrust of women) as “an extreme example of what subjectivity is. It aligns with my ideas about a male point of view and a male gaze.”

Several clips from movies are used as examples of scenes that objectify females in a sexual way. The movies include 1947’s “The Lady from Shanghai ” (directed by Orson Welles); 1981’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (directed by Bob Rafelson); 1989’s “Do the Right Thing” (directed by Spike Lee); 1998’s “Buffalo 66” (directed by Vincent Gallo); 2003’s “Lost in Translation” (directed by Sofia Coppola); 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049” (directed by Denis Villeneuve); 2019’s “Bombshell” (directed by Jay Roach); 2020’s “Cuties” (directed by Maïmouna Doucouré); and 2020’s “365 Days” (directed by Barbara Bialowas and Tomasz Mandes). Although the documentary focuses primarily on how women are objectified in cinema, “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” includes a brief example of a man being sexually exploited on camera, by showing the scene in 1975’s “Mandingo” (directed by Richard Fleischer) where a white woman forces an enslaved African American man to have sex with her.

UCLA Film & Television Archive director May Hong HaDuong acknowledges: “I think sometimes, with films that are part of the canon, that are part of the ‘best’ films, there is a reticence to even question how they were made and the stories they tell. And I think it’s okay to to still love and see a film, and say it was great, but that it has some issues. And I think without questioning it, we’re doing a disservice to our own humanity.”

“Daughters of the Dust” director Julie Dash says, “As filmmakers, we have to be courageous and willing to be that force, and be willing to speak our minds, and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. What’s wrong with this picture? What’s the visual rhetoric we’re looking at? It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel correct. Let’s rethink this.'”

In the documentary, Menkes presents a theory that there’s a direct line between visual language of cinema, employment discrimination (against women in the film industry) and sexual abuse/assault. The employment discrimination is obvious when you consider how actresses over the age of 60 are rarely hired to be in movies as sexy, leading characters with an active love life. By contrast, male actors over the age of 60 can be cast as sexy leading characters with an active love life, and they usually have a female love interest in the movie who’s at least 15 to 20 years younger. The gender discrimination is even more prevalent when it comes to who gets cast as the headlining stars of action movies.

Rosanna Arquette, an actress who was 18 when her first movie (the 1977 TV-movie “Having Babies II”) was released, says that now she’s a middle-aged woman, she’s lost out on many jobs for what she thinks is age discrimination: “I got a great movie lately. It would’ve moved the needle. And they decided to go younger [casting a younger actress for the role] … That happens a lot. I have a lot of sadness even talking about it, because I love to work.”

The “male gaze” means that women in front of the camera are held to higher standards, in terms of pressure to look youthful and be of a certain body type, usually slender. Aarons says, “I think this visual language really contributes to female self-hatred and insecurity in a way that is not insignificant. What is normalized as beauty is seen specifically and dominantly through a male gaze.”

It’s hard to argue with this fact: Male actors can be considered “sex symbols” when they have gray hair and wrinkles, while actresses with gray hair and wrinkles are rarely considered “sex symbols.” Catherine Hardwicke (whose directorial credits include 2003’s “Thirteen” and 2008’s “Twilight”) comments, “I don’t worry if a guy has wrinkles because it just makes him look rugged as they get older, but you don’t want to think that for women.”

Who gets to decide what’s sexy? Who gets to influence people into thinking what’s sexy? In many cases, these influencers are the filmmakers who portray these actors and actresses as sex symbols, according to what the (usually male) filmmakers want. That type of influence has far-reaching effects on how people around the world perceive themselves. It’s probably no coincidence that women are the majority of people who get anti-aging plastic surgery.

Menkes sees five ways that the “male gaze” and sexism affect choices during the shot design, which is how a scene is filmed: (1) subject/object; (2) framing; (3) camera movement; (4) lighting; and (5) narrative positions of the characters, which are influenced by the previous four factors. For example, there are too many movies to name where the camera takes an ogling view of a woman: Her body is looked at up and down, sometimes in slow motion, while the men in the same movie don’t get the same camera treatment. Sometimes in these body-ogling scenes, the women’s face is not seen, as if her face doesn’t matter because she’s just an anonymous sex object to be stared at in a leering way.

Similarly, women are more likely than men to have their body parts singled out on camera for close-ups or camera angles that are meant to be sexually arousing. (We all know which body parts they are.) This type of filmmaking has become so common, many viewers don’t question it or don’t even think about it. “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” shows in no uncertain terms that this type of complacency is part of the sexism problem and why sexism continues to affect women and girls in a negative way.

Menkes and some other people who comment in the documentary come right out and say that “male gaze” sexism also plays a role in rape culture. Dartmouth College faculty member/filmmaker Iyabo Kwayana says, “I think we have to consider that it is through the formal visual language, we are effectively communicating meaning. It has to do with how [camera] shots are composed and framed, how they’re assembled, and ordered in a sequence of shots … If the camera is predatory, then the culture is predatory as well.”

The constant barrage of “male gaze”-directed images in movies that try to dictate what is “sexy” and “not sexy” in a woman can have real-world consequences on women’s self-esteem. As psychoanalyst Dr. Sachiko Taki-Reece says in the documentary about how a typical woman reacts to these movie images that are usually decided by men: “For women, because you are looking at those films, for instance, she would like to shape herself to be the object of the gaze. But she thinks, ‘Some part of me is not matching to that image.’ She feels empty. That’s the problem.”

Dr. Kathleen Tarr, who works with the Geena Davis Institute Task Force and Stanford University, comments on how sexist portrayals of women of movies can have consequences for women’s careers: “Absolutely, objectification of women impacts hiring practices … It becomes this way of dealing with women that is primarily around their sexual value. If they’re attractive to you, it absolutely has to do with how you’re treated on the job.”

An obvious and common question comes up in these types of discussions: “Why don’t more women just become movie directors?” The answer isn’t as simple as more women just need to go to film school, because there are sexist barriers to actually getting hired in the real world. The documentary cites a Los Angeles/San Diego State University study that found that about 50% of film school students in America are women, but women are less than 15% of the directors of the top-grossing movies in any given year.

Director/activist Maria Giese explains: “People are really happy for women to be attending film schools at parity with men, as long as they’re paying money into the system. But when we move into the professional playing field, and we’re asking the industry to pay [equal] money out to women, that’s where the door gets closed. Hollywood has been the worst violator of Title VII of any industry in the United States of America.”

Award-winning director Penelope Spheeris says when she was in school, including when she getting her master’s degree, “It never occurred to me to be a director.” That’s because in many people’s minds, the image of a movie director is that of being one specific demographic. As actress Charlyne Yi put its it: “Gender is a huge factor when you look around [movie] sets. Things haven’t changed that much. It’s mostly white men.”

“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival) certainly presents important visual evidence to bolster the premise of this documentary. However, the movie isn’t without some flaws. Perhaps the biggest flaw is in the last third of the film, which turns into Menkes going into a self-promotion tangent: She shows clips from her own movies as examples of a “female gaze” that empower women or have women on an equal level as men on camera. This part of the documentary just looks like ego posturing, Menkes patting herself on the back, and perhaps exaggerating the impact that her movies have had on the movie industry.

“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” admirably gives some mention to female director pioneers, such as Alice Guy-Blaché and Dorothy Arzner. However, “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” should have given more credit to contemporary women filmmakers who are avoiding the “male gaze” sexism trap. The documentary would have been enriched if these female filmmakers gave analyses of certain scenes in their movies where they made choices to present women on camera in an empowering way. Instead, “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” kind of fizzles when the documentary veers off into what looks like Menkes doing an infomercial/sizzle reel of her own work. That’s not to say that Menkes shouldn’t have given analysis of her own work in this documentary but that she should’ve let more female filmmakers in the documentary have the chance to do the same.

The documentary also misses the mark by not including any perspectives of any male directors, particularly those who’ve used “male gaze” sexism, to get their side of the story of why they made these choices. (No men are interviewed in the documentary at all.) It’s very easy to dole out criticism of people in a documentary when those people don’t get a chance to respond in the documentary. It’s much harder to confront those people and give them a chance to explain their points of view in the documentary.

Other people interviewed in “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” include “Liberating Hollywood” author Maya Montañez Smukler, Global Media Center for Social Impact founder Sandra de Castro Buffington, cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, artist/activist Laura Dale and culture transformation scholar Dr. Raja G. Bhattar. Dale shares a story that she says happened to her when she was an actress, she refused to do a sex scene that wasn’t in the script. She later got an ominous message from a female casting agent, who made this thinly veiled threat in an attempt to coerce Dale to do the sex scene: “We can fix this so won’t destroy your life.”

“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” comes across as an echo chamber of interviewees who essentially agree with the arguments that Menkes has in her presentation. As valid as many of these issues are, this documentary cannot be considered truly well-balanced if it doesn’t present opposing points of view. It would have made for a higher-quality documentary if it included a healthy exchange of dialogue from people with conflicting opinions.

In “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power,” Menkes makes a statement that could be considered a response to any criticism she gets about these issues. In answer to anyone who thinks she’s just an uptight feminist, Menkes has this to say in the documentary: “If you are a heterosexual male, and you want to photograph some woman’s behind, I am certainly not the sex police. I’m not telling you, ‘Don’t do that.’ I’m just pointing out the fact that a whole lot of majorly acclaimed directors through time have done just that. There isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room for those of us seeing these things and are sick of the results of that kind of attack on our selfhood.”

Kino Lorber released “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” in select U.S. cinemas on October 21, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on December 6, 2022.

Review: ‘Love Is Love Is Love,’ starring Rosanna Arquette, Kathy Baker, Maya Kazan, Chris Messina, Cybill Shepherd, Joanne Whalley and Rita Wilson

December 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from top center: Maya Kazan, Rosanna Arquette, Polly Draper, Joanne Whalley, Nancy Carlin, Cybill Shepherd, Elea Oberon, Alyson Reed, Valarie Pettiford and Rita Wilson in “Love Is Love Is Love” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Love Is Love Is Love”

Directed by Eleanor Coppola 

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities, the dramatic anthology film “Love Is Love Is Love” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Challenges in sustaining loving relationships are presented in three separate and unrelated stories within the film. 

Culture Audience: “Love Is Love Is Love” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a boring movie about love, featuring some well-known cast members.

Marshall Bell and Kathy Baker in “Love Is Love Is Love” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Love Is Love Is Love” should’ve been titled “Dull Is Dull Is Dull,” if people want an accurate description of this slow-moving train wreck. The movie wastes the talents of the cast in this badly conceived and clunky anthology film. Directed by Eleanor Coppola, who co-wrote the snooze-worthy screenplay with Karen Leigh Hopkins, this movie’s main purpose seems to be to give jobs to some well-known, longtime actresses, who unfortunately do not work enough due to age discrimination. These actresses deserve better than this misfire that does little to dispel the Hollywood movie stereotype that women over the age of 60 have boring love lives whenever they’re put in a movie.

What’s also off-kilter about the three-story anthology film “Love Is Love Is Love” is that the first two stories are much shorter than the third story. The first story, titled “Two For Dinner,” is 20 minutes long. Next is “Sailing Lesson,” which totals 16 minutes. Last but not least is “Late Lunch,” which is 49 minutes long and is the best story in the anthology. But that’s not saying much, because “Late Lunch” is still monotonous and ends in a very corny way.

“Two for Dinner” and “Sailing Lesson” are so inconsequential and forgettable, the movie would’ve been better off if it focused solely on the “Late Lunch” story, but only if it had gone through a major rewrite that improved the dialogue. Most of the cast members in the entire film do an adequate job in their performances. But they are hampered by playing characters who have the somewhat sad air of people who think that their best days are behind them.

“Two for Dinner”

“Two for Dinner” is literally about a video conference conversation that a bored and lonely wife named Joanne (played by Joanne Whalley) has with her film producer husband Jack (played by Chris Messina) while he’s away on location for a movie shoot in Whitefish, Montana. The movie never says exactly where Joanne is, but it’s supposed to be somewhere in the U.S., thousands of miles away from Montana. The conversation is supposed to be “cute” because Joanne and Jack have each taken their laptop computers to a local restaurant, so they can talk to each other while having dinner at a restaurant table.

If you think it’s romantic to watch a husband and wife make small talk about what to order on the menu and discussing whom their college-age daughters are dating while restaurant servers occasionally interrupt the conversation to take orders, then “Love Is Love Is Love” is the movie for you. You’ll find out more about the adult daughters’ love lives then you’ll find out about this longtime married couple.

For example, Joanne talks about a daughter named Kate, who’s dating a guy who rides a motorcycle. Joanne tells Jack that one day, the boyfriend asked Joanne for advice on how to have a long marriage. Joanne’s reply? “Don’t get divorced.” The end of this dull-as-dirt “Two for Dinner” segment ends with Joanne making an impulsive decision that’s supposed to show she wants to bring some spark to the marriage. Too late. Viewers might already be tempted to fall asleep or stop watching.

“Sailing Lesson”

Things don’t get much better in “Sailing Lesson,” which is about a married, retired couple who get stranded on a lake when they take what’s supposed to be a romantic boat ride by themselves. The movie doesn’t mention the name of the city where these spouses live. Diana (played by Kathy Bates) and John (played by Marshall Bell) have been together for 41 years, but John tells Diana that he’s gotten so bored with her, he openly jokes to Diana that he’s going to find a girlfriend.

Even though he’s only joking, Diana is alarmed enough to coax John to go a date with her on a boat where they are the only two people on the boat. While they sail on a lake, Diana and John have some bland conversations where they talk a little bit about their relationship. John doesn’t like that Diana seems to care more about her book club and going to gardening events than she seems to care about him.

And then, what do you know: The boat’s engine malfunctions, and it can’t start. There are no other people in sight to help John and Diana. Predictably, the boat is so basic, it doesn’t even have an emergency radio. John and Diana also can’t get any signals on their phones.

While Diana and John wait for any type of help to show up, the movie tries to have a sexy moment when Diana decides that she’s going give oral sex to John. (There’s nothing explicit shown, but it’s clear what Diana is about to do when she unzips John’s shorts and lowers her head.) It’s all so staged and phony that it’s anything but sexy. It doesn’t help that Bell is a supbar actor who just recites his lines in a robotic way.

It’s easy to predict what happens in the midst of this sex act. Let’s just say that after being “stranded” alone for hours, John and Diana suddenly don’t have privacy when they need it. By the time this plot development happens, viewers won’t care what really happens to John and Diana during and after this boat excursion. There are tidal waves that are more exciting than this couple.

“Late Lunch”

“Late Lunch” isn’t about a couple trying to spice up their marriage but it’s about a young social-justice attorney named Caroline (played by Maya Kazan), who has invited the dearest friends of her late mother, Claire Reynolds, to have a luncheon at Claire’s house, which is somewhere in California. Claire, who died a month earlier in a car accident, was a widow and a retired photo editor. The “love” in this story is about the love between friends and between a parent and a child.

Almost the entire segment consists of the conversation around the table during this lunch. One by one, the women talk about their lives and share their stories. Caroline, who’s lived on the East Coast since she was 18, had a tension-filled relationship with her mother. Claire disapproved when bachelorette Caroline broke up with a fiancé whom her mother wanted Caroline to marry. Caroline is filled with some guilt and regret because her last conversation with her mother was an argument.

The guests at the luncheon share their fondest memories of Claire and how she affected their lives. Anne (played by Rosanna Arquette) talks about how when she and Claire were teenagers, they made plans to lose their virginity around the same time. Jackie (played by Alyson Reed) is a lesbian who says that even though Claire was politically conservative, Jackie admired how Claire was so accepting of Jackie when Jackie came out of the closet about her sexuality.

Marlene (played by Polly Draper) had a sometimes-rocky friendship with Claire, whom she met when they both worked at Vogue. At the time, Marlene was an intern, and Claire was an assistant to the photo editor. Marlene says that Claire was a “bitch” to Marlene when they first got to know each other. Marlene and Claire found out that they were both dating the same guy at the same time, but Marlene and Claire ended up becoming friends. When Marlene reveals a secret that happened later in her friendship with Claire, it’s not too surprising, considering what happened early in their friendship.

Whalley, who was in the “Two for Dinner” segment, is in “Late Lunch” as another character named Joanne. The Joanne in “Late Lunch” says that her husband left her for another man. Nancy (played by Cybill Shepherd) confesses an emotionally painful secret from her past that has to do with parenthood. Mary Kay (played by Rita Wilson) is an aspiring singer, which means that Wilson promotes her own music in the movie. She sings a song during this lunch called “Because Love,” which Wilson co-wrote with Laura Karpman.

Wendy (played by Valarie Pettiford) is a doctor who often confided in Claire about the challenges and bigotry that Wendy experiences as an African American woman. Patty (played by Nancy Carlin) is Claire’s childhood friend from Dayton, Ohio, who feels self-conscious that her life isn’t as sophisticated and well-traveled as many of the other women’s lives. The other women try to reassure Patty that her life is just as interesting as theirs, but they don’t sound very convincing because no one really wants to hear about Patty’s life in depth.

Rose Simone (played by Elea Oberon) is a French woman from Paris who is a latecomer to the lunch. She brings a box of French chocolate as a gift. When the subject of forgiving infidelity comes up, Rose Simone offers this trite platitude: “Love. It’s bigger than the bedroom.” This is the type of mawkishness that the movie tries to pass off as “witty” conversation. Unfortunately, this luncheon, which was supposed to be a tribute to Claire, often sounds like a pity party of women expressing regrets about decisions they made in their youth.

“Love Is Love Is Love” misses the mark because viewers are left wondering what the point of the movie is when the movie presents love in such a passionless way. The movie basically just shows two stories about two longtime married couples having boring conversations while on a date, and a third story about women at a luncheon talking about themselves and a dead woman. Much like the tone of this movie, the “love” isn’t vibrant at all but is rather outdated and unaware of how lackluster it is.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Love Is Love Is Love” in select U.S. cinemas on November 12, 2021. The movie’s release on digital and VOD was on December 14, 2021.

Review: ‘The Etruscan Smile,’ starring Brian Cox, Rosanna Arquette, JJ Feild and Thora Birch

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Thora Birch, Brian Cox and JJ Feild in “The Etruscan Smile” (Photo courtesy of Lightyear Entertainment)

“The Estruscan Smile”

Directed by Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnu

Culture Representation: Set in San Francisco and Scotland’s Valasay, Isle of Lewis, the family drama “The Etruscan Smile” has a predominantly white cast of characters representing the wealthy and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Scottish ferry operator goes to San Francisco to seek medical treatment and reunites with his estranged son, who has started his own family.

Culture Audience: “The Etruscan Smile” will appeal primarily to fans of the book on which the movie is based, as well as people who like sentimental dramas about emotional subjects, such as death and family.

Rosanna Arquette and Brian Cox in “The Etruscan Smile” (Photo courtesy of Lightyear Entertainment)

If you’re not in the mood for a tearjerking drama about a dying man who reunites with his estranged son, then “The Etruscan Smile” is not going to be for you. But if you want to see a well-acted story that is elevated by authentic performances by the cast, particularly star Brian Cox, then “The Etruscan Smile” is worth watching. Just make sure you have plenty of tissues nearby if you’re someone who cries during movies.

Based on the 1985 novel “The Etruscan Smile” by José Luis Sampedro, the movie version makes some location and cultural changes from the book. “The Etruscan Smile” book, which is set in Italy, is about a dying farmer who reluctantly seeks medical treatment in Milan, stays with his estranged son, and finds it difficult to adjust to city living, but his attitude toward life changes as he bonds with his grandson. The movie has a similar premise, but the central character is a 75-year-old Scottish ferry operator named Rory MacNeil, who travels from Scotland to San Francisco to get medical treatment.

“The Etruscan Smile” was released in the United Kingdom in 2019, under the title “Rory’s Way,” which isn’t a particularly good renaming of the film because it’s so vague. Even if people have never heard of “The Estruscan Smile” book, at least it’s explained in the movie why the story has this title, which carries more emotional resonance than a title like “Rory’s Way.”

The beginning of the film takes place in Rory’s hometown of Valasay, Isle of Lewis in Scotland, where he’s a widowed former carpenter who lives alone on Hebridean Island. Rory starts his mornings by skinny-dipping in Kyles of Valasay. He spends his work days as a ferry operator for tourists, and at night he’s usually drinking in local pubs. In addition to his drinking problem, Rory can be gruff, crude and stubborn. He has the lifestyle of someone who likes to live alone and is set in his ways.

While at hanging out at a pub one night, Rory gets in an argument with Alistair Campbell (played by Clive Russell), a local man he’s been feuding with for years. Campbell shouts to the pub patrons that he’ll pay for everyone’s drinks to celebrate that Rory is dying. Rory then insults Campbell, who eventually backs off. As viewers find out later in the movie, the feud involves a bizarre contest between the two men where they’ve decided that the “winner” is whoever outlives the other.

Viewers soon see that Rory does have a serious medical condition, to the point where he’s collapsed in his home. The only person who’s been treating him is a local veterinarian, who tells Rory that he can no longer give him medicine that’s meant for animals, and he urges Rory to see a doctor who treats humans.

And apparently, since there are no doctors in Scotland or the rest of the United Kingdom that Rory wants to see, he travels all the way to San Francisco to get medical treatment, even though as a visitor from the U.K., he wouldn’t have health insurance in United States. This is the only part of the story that doesn’t make much sense. However, there are a few explanations that clear up this apparent plot hole.

First, it’s pretty obvious that since the story revolves around Rory reuniting with his estranged son, Rory (who probably knows that he’s dying, but is afraid to get the official diagnosis) is going on the trip so that he can stay with his son and get to know his son and his family better. Secondly, the question that viewers might have about how Rory is going to pay for his medical treatment is answered when Rory arrives in San Francisco, is tensely greeted at the airport by his estranged son Ian (played by JJ Feild), and taken to Ian’s high-rise luxury condo in San Francisco: Ian has married into a wealthy family.

Ian, who is Rory’s only child, went to college for biochemistry, but his chosen profession is as a chef whose specialty is molecular gastronomy. He works as a sous chef at an upscale restaurant owned by a celebrity chef, who’s not named in the movie. Ian’s supportive wife Emily (played by Thora Birch) used to work at a hospital but has launched her own firm, which is in the start-up stage. She works from home and has a nanny named Frida (played by Sandra Santiago), but Emily also has to travel a lot for her business. Emily’s father has the kind of money to afford box seats at Candlestick Park for San Francisco Giants games, as Ian mentions to Rory.

It’s obvious from Rory and Ian’s first moments together, after not seeing each other for 15 years, that the reunion is going to be tense. Rory tells Ian that he’s glad to see him, while Ian only tersely nods and says nothing. While driving from the airport, Rory gives Ian a small wooden toy horse that Rory hand-carved himself, and says that it’s a gift for Ian’s infant child Jamie. Unfortunately, Rory calls Jamie a “she” when Jamie is actually a boy. Ian doesn’t even try to hide his disgust that Rory couldn’t be bothered to remember the gender of his only grandchild. (The adorable and expressive baby Jamie in the movie is played by twins Oliver Aero Kappo Epps and Elliot Echo Boom Epps.)

There are other reasons, explained in different parts during the movie, for why Ian and his father have been estranged. After Jamie was born, Rory never bothered to contact Ian and Emily—not even to send a card. It’s also hinted in the movie that because of Rory’s conservative viewpoints on how men and women should be, Rory never really thought of Ian as a “man’s man” and was probably disappointed in Ian’s career choice. It seems like Rory expected Ian to gave a more “manly” profession that requires physical strength.

Rory also has some resentment toward Ian, because he think Ian “abandoned” his Scottish roots by going away to America to attend the University of California at Berkeley. Ian’s late mother is briefly mentioned a few times in the movie. It’s implied that she was probably a long-suffering wife, considering Ian’s stubborn and sexist ways of thinking. And because Rory was most likely the more difficult partner in the marriage, Ian is angry with his father about that too.

Because Emily’s father has paid for the condo where Ian and Emily live, Rory makes it known that he doesn’t respect Ian for not being the family breadwinner and for taking financial handouts from Ian’s father-in-law. Rory also isn’t comfortable with Emily being the more dominant partner in the marriage, as he sarcastically remarks to Ian that Emily is the one who’s wearing the pants in the family.

While Rory is staying with Ian and Emily, he tells them the real reason for the visit: He needs to get an exam for some medical issues. Emily is understanding, but it’s another reason for Ian to get upset with Rory, because Ian doesn’t like that Rory wasn’t forthcoming about all of the reasons for the visit. Meanwhile, Rory tries to adjust to living in a big city and using modern technology. And he also has to adjust to being a grandfather.

When he’s alone with Jamie, who starts crying as babies do, he gruffly tells the child, “Man up!” It’s obvious that Rory doesn’t really know much about taking care of a baby, because he comes from the “old school” way of thinking that it’s a woman’s job to do that. But over time, Rory bonds with Jamie and looks forward to babysitting him.

One day, Rory takes Jamie out for a stroll for a couple of hours, but he doesn’t tell anyone that he’s leaving and when he’s coming back. Viewers can see that it’s entirely in Rory’s character to do something this irresponsible because he’s so used to living alone and not having to answer to anyone. When he returns with the baby to Ian and Emily’s home, Ian is furious, and Emily is worried but actually apologizes to Rory instead of scolding him. Emily says that she understands how Rory might be overwhelmed by his new surroundings.

After coming back from his first doctor’s appointment in San Francisco, Rory finds a tuxedo handing in his closet and a note attached to get dressed in the tuxedo and a car will pick him for for an event. The event is a black-tie gala at a museum, and Rory arrives only wearing the top of the tuxedo and a traditional Scottish kilt on the bottom. Ian is part of the culinary team that’s prepared the food at the event, which was organized by Emily.

It’s at this soiree that Rory meets Emily’s widowed father Frank (played by Treat Williams) for the first time. Frank makes a grand gesture in front of Ian, Emily and Rory, by telling Ian that he’s put a down payment on new restaurant for him, because he wants Ian to run his own restaurant. Ian is surprised and grateful, but Rory is repulsed that Ian has had this opportunity handed to him instead of working for it. Rory thinks it’s emasculating for Ian to be so reliant on Frank. Rory comments in Scottish Gaelic as he walks off, “The best way to tame your horse is to shoot his balls off.”

While wandering around the museum by himself, Rory sees an Etruscan sculpture of a smiling couple in a loving embrace. A museum employee explains to Rory that the couple is actually dead but still able to smile. The woman, whom Rory later finds out is named Claudia (played by Rosanna Arquette), chats with Rory some more, but she’s put off by his crude way of flirting with her. He tells her that she looks natural, unlike the women at the gala with the “big, fake tits.” Still, how Rory and Claudia meet is the kind of “meet cute” moment that you can immediately tell will lead to Rory and Claudia to begin dating each other.

Shortly after attending the party, Rory gets a call from Scotland that thrills him to bits: He’s found out that his enemy Campbell is dying from liver failure and doesn’t have much longer to live. It’s a moment of gloating that could be considered karma when Rory goes for another hospital visit, and this time, he gets bad news from physician Dr. Weiss (played by Tim Matheson): Rory has Stage 4 prostate cancer. Dr. Weiss refuses to tell him at first how many months Rory has to live, although the doctor relents much later in the story and tells Rory how much time he probably has left.

Rory reacts to the diagnosis with denial and anger. He calls Dr. Weiss a “good for nothing.” And when he tells Ian the news, he snaps, “I’m fine!” when Ian expresses concern. He also tells Ian that Dr. Weiss is an “idiot” and a “hack.”

It isn’t long before Rory is back at the museum—this time during the day as a visitor. He has Jamie in a baby stroller with him, but Rory gets distracted when a young woman in the museum pickpockets him, and he unsuccessfully chases after her, leaving Jamie and the baby stroller behind. When Rory frantically returns to where he left Jamie in the stroller, he sees Claudia holding the baby. It’s such an “only in a movie” moment—but then again, stranger coincidences have happened in real life.

While Rory is getting reacquainted with Claudia, a man standing nearby overhears Rory speaking in Gaelic and tells Rory that a local university is doing research on endangered languages and would love to hire Rory for his knowledge of Gaelic. Rory says he doesn’t need the money but he would participate in the research if Claudia accompanies him to the first session. Claudia is won over by Rory’s charming side, and they begin to date each other. It’s during the research sessions led by a professor (played by Peter Coyote, whose character in the movie doesn’t have a name) that Rory starts to feel valued as a person and completely accepted for who is he is, which affects his newfound appreciation of life.

Cox is one of those character actors who’s usually the best performer in whatever project he’s involved with (and he’s finally getting major acclaim with HBO’s “Succession”), so it’s not much of a surprise if you’ve seen his work that he gives another gem of a performance. Rory MacNeil can be unpleasant, but Cox infuses the performance with a lot of humanity that shows how tender Rory is underneath all of his blustery toughness.

The supporting actors also do a very good job with their roles. A particular standout is Feild, who goes through a wide range of emotions as Ian, a man who is struggling with his identity and confidence issues because he’s always been in a family where other people have dominated. During the course of the movie, viewers see that Ian realize that he needs to define his own happiness instead of letting others dictate it for him.

“The Etruscan Smile’s” screenplay (written by Michael McGowan, Michal Lali Kagan and Sarah Bellwood) can occasionally have hokey dialogue, but the actors improve these moments of triteness by their genuine portrayal of human emotions. All of the characters in the film are entirely believable, even though some of the words in the script are overly maudlin.

The pacing and tone of the movie (directed by Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnu) are at times a little too slow and quiet for some people’s tastes, but the direction is solid. The cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe is quite gorgeous at times, especially in the aerial shots of San Francisco and Scotland.

“The Etruscan Smile” (the first movie produced by Oscar winner Arthur Cohn since 2012’s “Russendisko”) isn’t a movie about a big, loud dysfunctional family. Most of the turmoil shown in “The Etruscan Smile” is internalized by the characters, but their true feelings come out in facial expressions and other body language, rather than non-stop melodrama. The last third of the movie is the best part, so the slower parts of the film are worth getting through in order to see how the movie ends. (The closing shot in the last scene is especially poignant.)

“The Etruscan Smile” isn’t a groundbreaking film, but it’s a compelling character study of how one man deals with a terminal illness and how he tries to right some of the wrongs in his life. At the very least, the movie can remind people what legacies they want to leave behind long after they’re gone and to not take loved ones for granted.

Lightyear Entertainment released “The Etruscan Smile” in select cinemas in New York state and New Jersey on March 13, 2020. MVD Entertainment will release “The Etruscan Smile” on VOD, EST, DVD and Blu-ray on June 16, 2020. The film was released in the United Kingdom in 2019, under the title “Rory’s Way.”

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix