Friday March 29, 1996
Filmmakers have come to regard the American family farm as a kind of purgatory, a place for transients paying for sins. What the characters have done isn't always defined--often enough, they've been damned in advance. But what's politically (and perhaps agriculturally) significant is how the farm--the erstwhile symbol of tradition, family and the good earth--has become a fallen garden, where the corruption is palpable.
In this, America has become Europe. And in "Carried Away," Brazilian director Bruno Barreto ("Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands") has mounted a European film--meaning that its humanity takes priority over moral orthodoxy, and the dominant moral tone is gray--on the emotional flatlands of the Midwest.
Decadence? Of course. In fact, the distinct smell of decay surrounds the film's main character, Joseph Svenden (Dennis Hopper), a teacher whose schoolhouse is closing, whose mother (Julie Harris) is dying and whose fellow teacher and longtime lover, Rosealee Henson (Amy Irving), is growing more wizened by the day (cinematographer Declan Quinn of "Leaving Las Vegas" works a lot of magic here, and one of his tricks is draining Irving of youth and blood). Made lame by a childhood tractor accident, Joseph lives in a largely darkened world that's smothering in its own dust.
Barreto (who is married to his fellow executive co-producer Irving) provides plenty of fodder for the theater-seat psychologist: Rosealee, a widow, was married to Joseph's best friend and wants to marry the indecisive Joseph. Her son, Robert (Christopher Pettiet), resents him bitterly. Joseph's pronounced limp can easily be seen as the root of his emotional constraint. But the director largely resists all that--just as he resists the easy answers when Joseph and Catherine (Amy Locane), the recently arrived seductress-child of a retired soldier (Gary Busey) and a recalcitrant drunk (Gail Cronauer), becomes Joseph's one touch of paradise, while promising hell.
A 47-year-old teacher sleeping with his 17-year-old student is, of course, unforgivable, and we forgive Joseph immediately (unlike anyone in the film). You can blame Barreto for doing this if you like, but he does it, and well.
Joseph is a good man who's had very little in his life, and in many ways is a child--something the eroticized Catherine was never allowed to be. They're both weak, but "Carried Away" is about weakness. And its universality. And forgiveness. We have to forgive Barreto, in fact, when he allows the conventional elements of bad romance into his film. Or when he prolongs the nude scenes to the point of excess. The performers, including Hopper, do go gleefully naked, and he and Irving have a cathartic sex scene that's appropriately awkward. But there's the occasionally sense that what we're watching is dirty--a quality that's unattractive and betrays an otherwise sophisticated film.
Hopper plays against type and gives one of his better performances, maybe his best--which is impressive, considering that he carries the burden of being Dennis Hopper, an actor who's burlesqued his own image with psycho roles in films like "Waterworld." But in "Carried Away" he delivers an emotionally deft portrayal of a man who can't resist the forbidden when it's offered, because he's too inexperienced not to be desperate.
Carried Away, 1996. R, for nudity, strong sexuality and language. A Cinetel production, released by Fine Line. Director Bruno Barreto. Producers Lisa M. Hansen, Paul Hertzberg. Screenplay Ed Jones and Dale Herd, based on the novel "Farmer" by Jim Harrison. Cinematographer Declan Quinn. Editor Bruce Cannon. Costumes Grania Preston. Music Bruce Broughton. Production design Peter Paul Raubertas. Running time 1 hour, 44 minutes. Dennis Hopper as Joseph Svenden. Amy Irving as Rosealee Henson. Amy Locane as Catherine Wheeler. Julie Harris as Joseph's mother. Gary Busey as Maj. Wheeler. Hal Holbrook as Dr. Evans. Christopher Pettiet as Robert Henson.