Holy Smoke!

(USA/Australia - 1999)

by Dan McGowan

Cast: Kate Winslet, Harvey Keitel, Pam Grier, Julie Hamilton, Sophie Lee, Daniel Wyllie, Paul Goddard, Tim Robertson
Genre: Drama
Director: Jane Campion
Screenplay: Anna & Jane Campion
Cinematography: Dion Beebe
Composer: Angelo Badalamenti
Runtime: 114 minutes

Many people in the U.S. have turned to 'New Age' religions or religions of the Far East that are filled with exotic images and more forgiving words than the guilt-ridden tone of Christianity. They describe the attraction of their faith as just a feeling of great 'love' and 'joy' that gives them the much needed sense of spirituality without all the constraints and confining structure that Western religions are known for. Spirituality is being valued more and more in rich countries like the U.S. where everything is a commodity and churches are built right next to shopping malls. The search is for some kind of purity in a society that makes everything a commodity.

The disaffection of people like Ruth (Kate Winslet) and Renton in Trainspotting with this commodification is clear. Economics is the key. People are disaffected with the decadence of the post-modern consumer culture and its trappings (including capitalist Christianity), so they seek something that seems to be pure and untouched by greed and normality. The religions they choose end up being just as or even more packaged, but they believe they are finding unique and pure spirituality.

In its depiction of religion, power, and redemption, Holy Smoke! explores the desire of all humans regardless of race, class, and nation to transcend the stultifying consumer and commodity centered culture in this postmodern world. It takes a hard look at the quest for fundamental truth and meaning in this world, tackling the issues through the window of a disaffected youth, Winslet, and a world-wise cult breaker named PJ (Harvey Keitel). Their relationship gives insight into the human condition and our renewed search for spiritual meaning.

Ruth is a young girl from Australia on holiday with her friends in India. Here she is free from family and social constraint and is attracted to the exoticism of this foreign country. She did not set out on the trip to find enlightenment, but a vacation itself is a desire to see and experience the 'new'. It is an escapist desire to break temporarily from the stifling norm. Ruth is obviously in search of something more, because in due time she is mesmerized by a guru of some exotic religion in a tent gathering. Ruth is fascinated with the exoticism of the ritual and falls into a sort of trance when touched by the guru. This early scene is depicted satirically in the film by director Jane Campion. A medium close-up of a stupefied Ruth staring blankly forward with a backdrop of brightly glowing yellow light with pulsating graphics floating around her head gives the impression of a stereotypical New Age 'experience' we share with Ruth. In fact, it is cartoon-like and I am reminded of the stupefied looks of cartoon characters seeing birds and stars hovering around their heads when 'touched' by something such as a large boulder or anvil. While this may seem a harsh criticism of Ruth's newfound spirituality, Campion is merely getting us to take the perspective of PJ and Ruth's family. Campion does this because she wants us to be the skeptics that they are and then we can identify with the transformation and change that those characters go through when they in turn find their gurus.

Harvey Keitel plays PJ when we first see him like a superman Stephen Daedalus. It is made clear that this "cult exiter" exists outside the sphere of influence of such things as religion and control. Entering wearing all black from head to toe, accompanied by a Neil Diamond tune and filmed in slow motion, it is evident that PJ is the confident, independent, and self-assured man that we all (especially we Americans who romanticize the rugged individualism that he embodies) envision ourselves as. PJ seems to be his own master, and he is brought to Australia as the perfect foil for Ruth and her guru.

Left alone with Ruth, things for PJ quickly deteriorate. His weakness is his sexual desire and how that feeds his ego and machismo. The process of 'breaking' young women like Ruth (his job supplies him with many opportunities) gives him a great sense of power. Usually it is only psychological, but in the case of Ruth his desire gets the better of him. Ruth casts an equally powerful spell on PJ as her guru did on her. This is clearly illustrated in the seduction sequence where the old blues tune "I Put a Spell on You" plays in the background in a bar they are at. Ruth is dancing and playing with PJ, she uses her sexuality and perceived weakness (which PJ gets off on as it feeds his paternal instinct to 'take care' of her) to become an exotic sexual iconic figure or guru to him and cement her power in the relationship ("I put a spell on you / so you'd be mine"). PJ's self-assured and Daedalus-like façade completely disintegrates in the face of this as he succumbs to temptation and fails ethically.

At first, we are critical of PJ and enjoy seeing the power role reversal that makes him become what he probably despised, but Campion takes us in a surprising direction. She shows us the humanity in it. The final scenes of a psychologically devastated PJ in lipstick and red dress are meant to show him as pathetic, but not in a cynical way. There is something very human, revealing, and poignant about PJ (due to Keitel's great performance no less) that lets us identify with him. The transformation is complete when PJ has his vision of Ruth as a Hindu God. The feeling we get is not what I initially expected halfway through the movie, which would have been a depiction of feminist triumph, but of a man (one who seemed most immune to this in fact when we first met him) who gives us a glimpse of the human condition.

I was reminded at times of David Cronenberg's M. Butterfy, which tackled many of the same issues as this film with the exception of the religious aspect. In that film, Jeremy Irons plays a Western man who becomes obsessed and fascinated with the romanticized exoticism of China and has a similar sexual/power relationship with his 'butterfly' played by John Lone (who, like Ruth, turns out to be something more than expected that defies the power role they seek). In that film, however, the obsession leads to a transformation that ends with a final destruction of the Irons character. I expected that Holy Smoke! would follow a similar path, but Campion gives us redemption instead of destruction. The film suggests that we are all in search of something to feed our soul. There is something profound in the search for truth, even though it may come in a trashy religious package. We all have our gurus and we are all like Ruth and PJ.

My favorite scene in the film is when the family and Pam Grier character all become aware of the dire situation and all pray in their own unique ways for Ruth to be ok. The mother doesn't even know all the words to the prayer she says, but we are not invited to scoff at her but in fact see her as a mother full of love and hope for her daughter. Pam Grier sits at the table and finishes the prayer in a soulful and gospel-singer manner. This scene is the key to the film. As we see PJ have his spiritual vision, everyone else is searching out and clinging to the same thing. We are all unified in this respect. As Ruth returns to pick the devastated PJ up when most would leave him to suffer, we see the incredible poignancy and beauty of Ruth's, PJ's, and her family's plight in a world such as ours. The mercy that she shows saves PJ and the epilogue tells us that no matter where or why you go for your spiritual needs, it is the quest that makes us human and that matters.

The epilogue shows PJ, Ruth, and her mother have all evolved and found happiness and growth. The mother especially sticks out in the ending. Experiencing utter culture shock and rejecting the exoticism that Ruth was fascinated with in the beginning scenes, she seems transformed by the whole experience with Ruth and PJ and now embraces a new life. She represented the middle ground (entrenched in the societal/familial structure) between Ruth's wandering soul and PJ's atheistic overconfidence. With this final scene, we are able to identify with all of them, a cross section of this postmodern world where we can find a part of ourselves in each of them.

Both Winslet and Keitel are at the top of their game here. Winslet brings just the right tone in showing in turn naivete and wisdom, vulnerability and confidence. This is no small feat, and the fact that she can hold her own with the brilliant Keitel says a lot about her acting skills when given a good role. Keitel's performance is amazing. There is no other actor who gives as much as he does in his roles. He is not afraid to do anything, and he puts it all out there as usual. Again, he shows why he is the most underappreciated actor for maybe all time. The supporting cast is good as well with Julie Hamilton as Ruth's Mum, Tim Robertson as her Dad, and Pam Grier as PJ's assistant excelling in their roles. The only weakness of the film is that one wishes Grier's character was developed a little more as she only comes to the forefront towards the end of the movie. But this little complaint doesn't take much away from such a powerful film.



Web metalasylum.com

* Copyright 2001 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *