The Smallest Victims

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When we think of our children or grandchildren, the ghost haunting the attics of our minds is their vulnerability. They are essentially defenseless. And in the late watches of the night, we can't help succumbing to clammy unease.

That fear is pretty close to primal. And so, especially if they're American made, the movies have turned to this topic on a regular basis. If an anxiety is common enough, there's usually a dollar or two to be made on it. Parental nerves are currently fueling such straightforward pictures as Man on Fire, a revenge film, and Godsend, in which the spirit of a wicked child haunts the mind of a good one, with risible results. These films move to a standard beat, leaving us wanting to hear the sounds of a different drummer.

Mind & Body Happiness
Jan. 17, 2004

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A slightly different rhythm can be detected in the foreign offspring-in-emotional-peril movies coming to theaters now. In the elegant and understated Strayed, Andre Techine uses a grim, largely offscreen rumble — of war. A soldier's widow, Odile (the unimprovable Emmanuelle Beart), and her two children, 13-year-old Philippe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) and 7-year-old Cathy (Clemence Meyer), are trapped, unable to move on a refugee-clogged road from Paris in 1940. When their car is destroyed, a mysterious youth, Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), appears and leads them to a deserted chateau.

Yet there is something not quite right about him. He's abrupt, sullen, illiterate — and he cuts the telephone wires, effectively isolating them. An air of undefined menace begins to steal over the group, especially after Odile, for no explicable reason, yields to Yvan. It's a great scene; he closely studies her by the glow of his cigarette lighter because he has never seen a naked woman before.

It is a moment typical of this disconcerting film. Nothing horrific happens then — or ever. But still it keeps us on edge; we never quite trust it, because its emotional flow is so unpredictable. Or should one say, so lifelike in its hints of creepiness.

Would that Valentin had a touch of that strangeness. Played by relentlessly adorable Rodrigo Noya, 8-year-old Valentin lives in 1960s Buenos Airesdeserted by his mother, ignored by his philandering father and boarding with his cranky, sickly grandma. Eventually, he more or less invents a family to attach himself to. But this is not The 400 Blows. Director-writer Alejandro Agresti flat out denies the implicit — and, yes, existential — terrors of this child's desperately improvised life. Agresti's just out to give us a sentimental good time. Which some people, heaven help us, will have — while the rest of us choke on the cutesiness.

To chase the sticky taste from your mouth, what you need is a breath of dry, bracing air. Which a movie with a silly title — The Story of the Weeping Camel — and a lovely spirit provides. Set in Mongolia's Gobi Desert, it basically offers a glimpse into the hard, warm lives of the region's nomadic herders. But like the old, artlessly arranged documentaries of Robert Flaherty, it also tells a little story, about a camel who rejects her newborn calf — possibly because its fur is white. The family that owns it lives in patient harmony with the creatures and environment, but nothing within the family's humble power effects a reconciliation between the beasts. So the family evokes a traditional remedy — ages old — and sure enough, as a two-string violinist plays, the mother camel allows her baby to suckle. The directors, Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni, force nothing. They just stand at a decent distance recording a vanishing way of life (power lines and TV sets are already intruding). O.K., the endangered kid here is a calf, but viewers can deal with that little metaphor. Move over, Nanook of the North. Make room for a doleful dromedary — and for that rarest of commodities, a truly beautiful film the whole family ought to embrace.