'Night Is Falling' Rekindles the Ratings Controversy


The NC-17 rating applied to "When Night Is Falling," and upheld last week by the Motion Picture Assn. of America appeals board, has renewed debate about the ratings board's standards, particularly regarding homoerotic content.

The lesbian-themed love story by Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema was initially rated NC-17 by the MPAA's ratings board, which is made up of non-industry parents of minor children.

October Films--with the blessing of Rozema, who refused to trim the film for an R rating--sought and gained another screening by the MPAA's ratings appeals board, which includes some film industry representatives. It was the first appeal since the widely perceived "mainstreaming" of the adults-only rating by the release of MGM/UA's NC-17-rated "Showgirls."

The appeals board voted 13-1 to uphold the NC-17 rating. So October, which is not an MPAA signatory, released the film unrated Friday.

At the same time, movie ratings observers have noted that "Total Eclipse," the new Agnieszka Holland film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis about the steamy, stormy affair between poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, has reached the marketplace with the R rating--with several scenes of violence-tinged gay lovemaking intact.

"I'm befuddled that this film gets an R, while 'Night' gets an NC-17," said Stephen Farber, critic and author of "The Movie Ratings Game." "Having seen both films, I couldn't spot anything that would account for a tougher rating. 'Night' didn't strike me as particularly graphic. It's a sweet, tender, lyrical movie I can't imagine shaking up many people, [while] 'Total Eclipse' is full of very disturbing, abusive, sadomasochistic content. And it sort of reverses the MPAA's old trend, which has been to treat male homosexuality as more out of bounds than other kinds of sexual expression."

MPAA vice chairperson Joan Graves dismissed the idea of differing standards, calling it "a myth that frontal male nudity, for example, gets an NC-17, while frontal female nudity gets an R. The degree of graphic sex is the question in this case. It's important to remember that the board never compares one film with another--I believe that the board saw 'When Night Is Falling' and 'Total Eclipse' several months apart."

Rozema and Amir Malin, October's co-managing executive, said that "When Night Is Falling" has been released in Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia and Germany without an adults-only rating. In Canada and Australia, the rating applied to the film permits children under 15 accompanied by an adult or guardian--technically softer than even the MPAA's R rating.

"I wish you knew how cautious I am to brandish the word homophobia ," said Rozema, who hasn't seen "Total Eclipse," "but, with the MPAA, I have to. The irony is that people looking for that really horny scene, or that new sexual position they've never seen, well, they won't find it. Nothing here is designed to titillate, which is what pornography does."

Graves denied that the adults-only rating was applied strictly on the basis of the film's two lesbian lovemaking scenes. She said that the board did indeed cite two sex scenes as pushing the film from an R to NC-17--but while one was homosexual, the other was heterosexual. Malin said that the MPAA had informed October that all three sex scenes were considered important when determining the rating.

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