Santa Leaves a Six-Pack

In half a dozen Christmas movies, Hollywood worries a lot, has an affair, pays for a wedding, loses its faith and the rain forest, and gets stoned

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Back in 1950, when middle-class values were less besieged, MGM told this story sharply and beautifully, with two stars -- Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor -- who were born to play Everydad and Gorgeous Gal. Neither the '90s nor the husband-wife team of Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer (they wrote the new version, she co-produced, he directed) can match the original film's grace or wit. The humor is sometimes gross, often wan. Which doesn't mean you can't shed an agreeable tear at the climax, or take pleasure in recalling what weddings, families and movies were like in the chapel of optimism where, once upon a time, America worshipped.

By Richard Corliss


Not so long ago, even nonbelievers looked upon them with a certain awe. It took courage for priests and ministers to go among the savage heathens, trying to claim their souls for a Christian God. Now, in the age of cultural relativism, even some believers look upon these evangelicals skeptically; who are they to impose their beliefs on others? Amazing how the missionary position, or perhaps one should say our position on missionaries, has changed.

At Play in the Fields of the Lord presents a team of Fundamentalist interlopers in the Amazon rain forest whose leader, Leslie Huben (John Lithgow), has made a secret deal with local authorities to help drive an isolated, innocent tribe off its valuable land. Martin Quarrier (Aidan Quinn), the man directly in charge of bringing the good word to the natives, starts losing faith after his son dies and his wife (Kathy Bates) rather too colorfully goes bonkers.

Their behavior is contrasted to that of the noble half-savage Lewis Moon (Tom Berenger), a bush pilot who is part American Indian. He crashes his plane near the endangered tribe's village, dons a teeny-weeny bikini and passes himself off as one of their sky gods. He means well, but he too carries civilization's taint: the virus of lust, for Huben's wife (Daryl Hannah), which will lead to the villagers' destruction.

This is supposed to be a tragedy. But the contrivances are so loopy that the film often plays like a comedy: Monty Python on an off day. The rest of the time it plays like a documentary -- PBS on an off night -- as director Hector Babenco solemnly records native customs, an activity that accounts for much of the absurd three-hour length.

Black Robe, in contrast, is dark and stark, the perfectly controlled story of one Father Laforgue (Lothaire Bluteau), a 17th century Jesuit priest whose burning faith is expressed as an obsessive desire to save the souls of Canada's Huron Indians. They are relentlessly cruel, licentious, obscene in their behavior, squalid in their way of life. Yet as it is slowly revealed to him, their religion -- a thing of dark dreams, not texts, and peopled by forest spirits -- is in its way as subtle as his own, and perhaps rather more suited to this harsh environment.

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