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Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Lessons learned on the road

Holy Smoke

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Jane Campion
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: English
Opens May 31

Dateline: somewhere in Asia. You: a Western traveler on the road for a good, long while. The scenario: a phone call home. It goes like this: "Hi, Mom! Yeah, everything's fine. No need to worry. I haven't called because I've been having the most amazing, life-changing experiences with ( )." Fill in the blank: the Hare Krishnas, Rajasthani Gypsies, Sai Baba, Goa trance parties, the Osho commune, the Taliban, a Filipina bar-girl . . . whatever. Pick your passion. Oh, and add: "I'm not coming home like I planned."

News photo
Harvey Keital and Kate Winslet in "Holy Smoke"

Reaction from Mom? Dead silence, no doubt, followed by incomprehension, worry and scheming to get you "back on track." This gap between lived, edgy, even transcendent experience on the road, and the cultural presumptions and expectations of the family back home is a situation many a traveler will instantly recognize. Putting it up on the big screen, in an explosive mess of a movie called "Holy Smoke," is Australian director Jane Campion, best known for her award-winning 1993 film "The Piano."

"Holy Smoke" was Campion's followup to the 1996 adaptation of Henry James' "Portrait of a Lady," which featured a pre-critics' fave Nicole Kidman. Released internationally in 1999, "Holy Smoke" featured another first-rate actress: Kate Winslet in her first post-"Titanic" role, when the glow of worldwide fame still adorned her rosy cheeks. Opposite her was Harvey Keitel, whose late-career triumph was, arguably, "The Piano." One would think such a film would have no problem getting a Japan release.

Think again. Four years have gone by, and we are only now getting to see the film. Blame it on Keitel daring to look ridiculous -- in the penultimate scene, he wanders the desert dazed, in an ill-fitting red dress and makeup -- or blame it on Winslet for daring to appear nude, sporting a curvy figure often considered "plump" by the standards of Hollywood body-fascism. Or rather, blame it on the people who saw these things as strikes against the film and refused to take a chance on it. Idiots one and all, for this is definitely one of Campion's strongest films.

"Holy Smoke" is one of those rare films that dares to tackle the big questions -- faith, belief, love, happiness, our reason for being -- in an intensely personal and utterly believable way. The story is an elegantly structured battle of wills between an irresistible force -- older cult de-programmer P.J. Waters (Keitel), a suave and confident professional -- and an immovable object, young Australian traveler Ruth Barron (Winslet), who's become unshakable in her devotion to an Indian guru.

After Ruth joins an ashram in India, her mother Miriam (Julie Hamilton) tricks her into returning home by saying her dad is desperately ill. Upon arrival, Ruth looks fine, happy, radiant even, but her family sees only the alien white sari and constant talk about a guru/"baba," and decides to hire a de-programmer. The male members of her family corner her and force her to go off deep into the outback for a three-day session with Waters.

Waters, for his part, is concerned initially when his assistant doesn't show up: He'll be up against Ruth on his own. But cocky about his long string of successes, he's confident he'll break down this naive young girl as well. Little does he know.

While Ruth is the voice of direct, felt experience and a believer in knowing the truth in body and soul, P.J. is the opposite: cynical, intellectual and convinced that there is no one truth. Older, wiser, better-read, eloquent, he can talk circles around Ruth, who can barely find the words to express what she feels. She does, however, possess a fierce instinct for self-defense. Watching P.J. carefully -- with the gaze of someone who's deconstructed her own karma at the ashram -- Ruth picks up on P.J.'s twin weaknesses: his pride and his libido. Mercilessly she seduces him, only to rain scorn on him once he's hooked, de-programming the de-programmer.

Bullied into conforming by the men in her family, Ruth unleashes sex as a weapon, an option that wasn't available to Henry James' trapped heroine in "Portrait," a century earlier. Yet Campion avoids the obvious route of mere feminist revenge fantasy, where female "strength" defeats male "weakness." She takes it further, as P.J. -- through his absolute defeat and submission -- ends up proving something valuable to Ruth, a lesson in power and mercy.

Fans of electric, claustrophobically confrontational performances won't want to miss Winslet and Keitel here, as they take it to the edge. With this challenging, provocative and often quite funny work, Campion proves that she remains -- alongside Catherine Breillat, Agnes Varda and Lynne Ramsay -- among the most iconoclastic and important women directors working today.

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