Est/Ouest (East/West)
directed by Regis Wargnier
(Sony Pictures, 1999)

They say that the mark of a good film lies in whether or not it tells some sort of universal truth. If it captures, in story or visuals or both, some little piece of the human drama as it is.

Honestly, I can't say that Est/Ouest (East/West) does this. At least, it doesn't do so in a way that either a) isn't too overt or b) hasn't been done to death already.

Set in post-war Russia, Alexei takes his wife and young son to his home, after Stalin declared that any defectors could return without threat of punishment. Expectedly, Stalin lied -- most of the returnees were killed upon arrival. Alexei, because of his skill as a doctor, is allowed to live, and with him, his French national wife.

This is the first of the confusing questions. Why, if the Stalinists were taking such a hard line, would they allow Alexei to keep his wife? Why not just kill her? They did with others -- and since they were keeping the people in a near-prisonlike state anyway, it's not like Alexei would be able to leave. It makes little sense. However, without this suspension of disbelief, there would be no movie. So we can overlook that for now.

Maria, the wife, is distrusted, feared, and despised at every turn. She lives through affairs, deaths and imprisonment through the ten years that the movie portrays. But, after spending the length of the movie watching this woman, I'm not sure who she is. Why she is. Why she does anything. Her motives and her character are either nonexistent or so oblique that I missed them entirely.

It made the movie seem too long. When you don't care about the characters, it's tempting to click the STOP button on the VCR and go on with your own life.

So why didn't I? One word: visual.

The way the plot unfolded had nothing to do with the tiny touches of directorial brilliance that the director tucked in here and there. Est/Ouest is worth watching if only for the small plays of color and shadow. At times, it was so subtle as to be occult -- the rainbow reflected in Marie's necklace when she goes with Sacha (you'll have to see the film to know who he is) for the first time, mirroring the glimpse of hope that it awakens in her. The grainy black-and-white feel (even though it's in color) when they're outside. The fact that you're unnerved a little by the street scenes until you realize why -- there's no one on them. Maybe a random person or two, but it's the unseen presence that makes you nervous.

None of this is from the dialogue. It's all about the visuals. And it's fantastic.

The verdict? Unless you have a free rental coming and a slight masochistic streak, I wouldn't see this film on purpose. The visuals are fantastic, but they can't carry an entire movie of this magnitude, and the characters, even when all motives are revealed, aren't likable (or knowable) enough to make them carry the story, either.

The blatant truth here is about human bondage. It's beaten into the viewer's head until you want to turn off the subtitles. A more subtle one, the one of sacrifice and the nature of freedom, is lost in the twisted fight for flight, and falls, unfortunately, short of its mark.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]

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