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The Ridiculous and the Sublime

TIMES FILM CRITIC

In the real world, there is a distance between the decimated city of Sarajevo and the tumultuous career of Sylvester Stallone. At the Cannes International Film Festival, there is hardly any distance at all.

The Bosnian city is represented by the ambitious “Welcome to Sarajevo,” a film in competition directed by Britain’s Michael Winterbottom. Stallone is here to trumpet “Cop Land,” a (relatively) low-budget item that is something of a shift from the brawny epics he usually provides. Both films have the Miramax label attached, and neither is averse to drumming up a little publicity.

To that end, and out of what writer-director James Mangold called “Our heartbreak at not being here in a more substantial way” (Miramax says the film was accepted for competition in rough form but couldn’t be finished in time), 30 minutes of “Cop Land” were presented to the media. And Stallone made himself available for a small press luncheon and a larger press conference to beat the drum for yet another new direction for himself as an actor.

Displaying a charm and an easy manner that is absent from the screen, especially from his comedies, Stallone was not shy about offering mordant characterizations of what’s come before. For instance:

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“Judge Dredd”: “Seeing the dailies, I understood what it was like to be the captain of the Titanic.”

“Stop or My Mother Will Shoot”: “If it was a question of having my spleen removed with a tractor or watching it again, I’d say, ‘Start up the engine.’ ”

“Over the Top”: “That was greed at its best. I said, ‘OK, no one’s going to see it, no one will notice.’ It was so stupid.”

All in all, Stallone frankly admitted of his recent work, “I despise the last 10 years.” Referring to today’s kind of action pictures, he half-joked, “If you took the explosions out, 90% of them would not have endings. If someone stole the gasoline truck, it would be like an e.e. cummings poem at the end.”

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The actor credits having turned 50 last year as the key to his search for “films most studios wouldn’t give me.” His agency showed him two scripts, a dark comedy (“But I’d been so successful with those,” he cracked, “why bother with some automatic hit?”) and “Cop Land.”

As written by Mangold, whose debut film was “Heavy,” and co-starring Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Annabella Sciorra, “Cop Land” spins a tale of creeping corruption in a suburban town rife with New York City cops, a town with a pushover for a sheriff. A pushover played by Sylvester Stallone.

“It was the antithesis of who I usually play, a character who creates no menace whatsoever, furniture with a heartbeat,” the actor explained. To manage it, Stallone had to unlearn old habits (“He’s usually like Fred Astaire with a weapon,” said director Mangold) and, hardest of all, add a considerable amount of weight.

“I put on 38 pounds and went from a 31 waist to a 39 3/4--I drew the line at 40,” Stallone recalled. The resulting difference in body type caused teasing co-star Liotta to announce “fat man walking” when he appeared on the set, and a scene of Stallone’s character displaying a humongous gut so unnerved preview audiences that it was cut from the film.

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Though action pictures will hardly disappear from Stallone’s schedule, he says he hopes to make them a bit smarter. And he was especially looking forward to Sunday night’s gathering of all the previous Palme d’Or winners. “I’m gonna meet those people who won’t work with me,” he said, smiling yet again. “All in one room.”

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Standing in some contrast to “Cop Land,” however it may turn out for its projected August release, stands “Welcome to Sarajevo,” which blends drama, reality and recreation in a serious and largely successful attempt not to be the typical $9-million film about an embattled region. Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei star.

Based on “Natasha’s Story,” a book by a British TV newsman (played by Stephen Dillane) who came to cover yet another war story and ended up adopting one of the city’s orphans, “Sarajevo” could have turned out awkwardly sentimental. That it didn’t is due to director Winterbottom, whose “Jude” premiered here last year, and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce.

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“It would have been very easy to make the newsman’s story the movie, to do ‘He’s cold and cynical, she warms his heart, he saves her body, she saves his soul,’ ” said Boyce in an amusing mock studio pitch. “What we’ve done is more like a Dante story, a walk through hell.”

Helping keep the sentiment in check was the choice of somber Sarajevo resident Emra Nusevic to play 10-year-old Natasha. “We didn’t want anything particularly cute or nice or sentimental about the girl,” the director said. “Audiences in early screenings have commented that they didn’t understand what was special about this girl, and that was exactly the point.

Fairly early on, the decision was made to make “Sarajevo” as much about what that city experienced during its siege as about one journalist’s heroics. To that end, Winterbottom insisted, despite the qualms of financiers and insurers, on shooting in Sarajevo just after the cease-fire, which in turn meant having to check locations for land mines, “an extra complication,” the director says dryly, “we perhaps could have done without.”

More than anything, Winterbottom was determined “to make people think about what had happened in Sarajevo, to remind them that they saw it on TV and didn’t do anything about it.”

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A quietly passionate, youthful-looking 36, Winterbottom said he grew up thinking, “There wouldn’t be any more wars in Europe, but if there was one it would be the most important thing in our lifetime. It would be a defining event like the Spanish Civil War, not something you’d think about for two minutes before turning to the sports page, which is how it turned out. How was it we spent three years watching this and for 23 hours and 58 minutes of every day forgot about it?”

Winterbottom has included some 10 minutes of often graphic footage from TV coverage in his film. “I thought archive footage would be much more immediately moving,” he says. “I wanted to keep drawing people’s attention to the fact that this was a real story, that real people were being killed.”

If the director intended audiences to think, screenwriter Boyce had another objective. “I wanted people to feel something about something they didn’t feel anything about,” he said. “More than an act of analysis, it’s an act of mourning .”


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