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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Inheriting a heart of darkness

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Ashia Argento
Running time: 96 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Growing up can be a hellish experience, but few films about it are brave enough to come out and say so. With "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," however, being brave is never an issue. In fact, you start thinking that a dose of hypocritical cowardliness might be in order, or some kind of sugar-coated, teddy bear-ish anesthetic to deaden the onslaught of nonstop pain. But no such relief is in sight.

News photo
Jimmy Bennett and Asia Argento in "The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things"

The film never wavers from its mission and charges right on, seemingly fueled by its own horrific depictions and internal raging. And in the process it recalls one of the worst things that can afflict a child: a sense of the utter helplessness of it all. In the face of life's atrocities there's very little one can do except wait for the storm to subside and hope to emerge in one piece when it's over.

Created by Italian actress/filmmaker Asia Argento (see "Triple X" for her Hollywood breakthrough) and based on the autobiography of cult novelist/musician J.T. (Jeremiah Terminator) Leroy, "The Heart," titled "Sara Itsuwari no Inori" in Japan, is the cinematic equivalent of a farewell message addressed by the director to her parents (Italian horror-movie director Dario Argento and his leading lady Daria Nicolodi). Anyway, let's just dispense with the politeness -- this is a literal "f**k you" scrawled on the bathroom mirror before Asia-the-daughter leaves home with a single suitcase. The whole thing's so run-amok Freudian that any attempt at psychoanalyzing it is completely redundant.

In the production notes Argento talks about how isolated she felt in her father's house, and how hard she had worked to get her artist parents' attention (she wrote her first poem at the age of 5). She has starred in two of Dario's pictures, but points out: "My father raped me in his movie. And he killed my mother in his movies, over and over. I couldn't understand it."

Talk about vengeance, this brilliantly angry daughter unleashes all her inner demons, whips them into submission and sets them to work. Everything about the movie is intensely, disturbingly personal, and it's not even her own story.

Still, this vehicle was so close to her heart she wasn't going to let anyone else play the lead role. "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things" is the tale of the cult author and his mother, Sarah (who gave birth to him when she was 14), and the years they spent hooking at truck stops, living with an ongoing series of Sarah's scumbag boyfriends, scoring drugs and getting stoned.

Argento turns herself into Sarah with guts and relish; she exults in deprettifying herself to the point of disgust (cheap makeup, craggy skin, sex-shop outfits, 15-cm heels and a mouth that takes the word "filthy" to a much dirtier level). Sarah's "ugliness" is fascinating because it's also so sexual and powerful. It's easy to see how men -- including her son Jeremiah -- hate her for what she is, but can't tear themselves away.

Until the age of 7, Jeremiah (Jimmy Bennet) had been living comfortably with his foster parents and then one day, Sarah reclaims him. This is the end of all security as Jeremiah knew it; instantly he is plunged into a world of confusion, violence, abuse and rape. Most of the time he and Sarah sleep in the car and subsisted on the pills she popped in lieu of meals, or ate discarded French fries from someone's backyard trash can.

When Sarah eventually abandons him, her mother (Ornella Muti) comes to pick him up, but life in her Christian fanatic household helmed by a dictatorial preacher (Peter Fonda) proves to be a different kind of nightmare. Three years later, an older Jeremiah (played by identical twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse) is peddling Bibles on the street and Sarah appears out of the blue to beckons him back into her life. "I'm your mama," she tells him with a scary sweetness. "You can't get away from me."

Mesmerized by her snakelike stare, Jeremiah walks over and takes her hand. The downward tailspin of his life begins anew.

Argento has talked repeatedly of the affinity she felt to J.T. Leroy and the striking similarities of their childhoods. One could argue that there was nothing in Argento's privileged life (at least in a physical sense) that had anything in common with the world of Leroy, and yet it's true: They were both children sacrificed at the altar of their parents' professions/obsessions.

With Dario Argento, it was horror films; in the case of Sarah, it was sex. She didn't know how to communicate with anyone unless on a sexual level. In the movie, she turns coy and gentle only in the process of seduction, and at no other time. Because Jeremiah so hungered for any morsel of affection, he learned to ape her ways, and in one truly frightening scene he dons her lingerie and comes on to her boyfriend (played by the makeup-free Marilyn Manson) in an attempt to be like Sarah. When Sarah catches them together she flies into a jealous rage. Later she deploys Jeremiah's girlish good looks to full advantage at various truck stops. Look at what Sarah's done to her son, Argento seems to be saying. Or maybe it was more like: Look at what my father's done to me.

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