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Overall Rating
3.58

Awesome: 12.9%
Worth A Look61.29%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad: 22.58%
Total Crap: 3.23%

4 reviews, 7 user ratings


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Manderlay
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by Mel Valentin

"Metaphors everywhere, but is there a compelling story here? Almost."
4 stars

As a filmmaker/provocateur, Lars Von Trier has made a series of “statement” films, using the cinematic form to examine social, cultural, political, and philosophical issues (and often arriving at paradoxical, controversial conclusions). Von Trier’s films are often messy, didactic, and on occasion, monotonous. Von Trier’s latest effort, "Manderlay," is no different. "Manderlay," the second in von Trier's planned “USA – Land of Opportunity” trilogy (and the sequel to 2003's period drama about small-town intolerance and bigotry, "Dogville"), explores the contradictions inherent in "nation-building" (i.e., the process of forcefully converting countries from autocracies into democracies) through the prism of a Southern plantation where slavery exists almost seventy years after the end of the Civil War.

As Manderlay opens, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over for Nicole Kidman), the daughter of a wealthy, brutal gang boss (Willem Dafoe, stepping in for James Caan), has fled Dogville, which she, her father, and her father’s goons have left in ruins. Traveling across the southern United States (circa 1933), they stop for a break in Alabama outside a dilapidated plantation. There, an African-American woman pleads with Grace for help. One of the men, Timothy (Isaach De Bankolé), is about to be whipped by an overseer for an undefined transgression. Grace and her father quickly learn that Manderlay is a throwback to the South’s pre-Civil War past. At Manderlay, slavery still exists.

As Manderlay’s matriarch, Mam (Lauren Bacall), lays dying, Grace unilaterally decides to abolish slavery, depose the white family that owns and runs Manderlay, and create a democratic, egalitarian utopia (albeit through the use of force or the threat of force). Her father, eager to move on, leaves Grace behind with half of his men. With the ambiguous, ambivalent help of Wilhelm (Danny Glover), an elderly slave and patriarch to the slaves, Grace declares the slaves free and, with the help of her father's lawyers, creates a commune, with the ex-slaves given equal shares in Manderlay. The remaining members of the family are compelled to stay on as menial employees, all the while learning political and social lessons from hard work and Grace’s dictates.

Convinced that the ex-slaves need instruction in democracy, Grace embarks on a series of lectures. Attendance is mandatory, enforced by Grace's well-armed men. Grace imposes a rough, direct democracy on the community. The new community undergoes several hardships, including a fierce dust storm that threatens their livelihood, near starvation, and a betrayal that threatens to undo whatever "progress" Grace has made at Manderlay. In addition, sexual desire (and sexual frustration) adds another level of conflict for Grace and the new community. Not surprisingly, Grace is forced to confront her personal shortcomings, as well as the unintended consequences of her well-meaning political ideals.

In keeping with Dogville’s stripped-down aesthetic, the sets and props are kept to a minimum, with lighting, sound effects, and directional or location signs used to distinguish different parts of the set. Whether this heightened artificiality works as well here as it did in Dogville (where it felt fresh and innovative) is debatable, especially considering the dialogue-heavy content of most scenes. Von Trier attempts to counter soporific dialogue by constantly reframing and using jump cuts seem the result of desperation, rather than integral to the story. Manderlay has other, more pressing flaws, though, specifically the stilted, unnatural dialogue, overused, intrusive, didactic voice-over narration, and, perhaps most importantly, an uneven central performance from Bryce Dallas Howard (who, to be fair, is probably too young and inexperienced for the role).

On the level of subtext, however, there's much to think about or discuss. On one level, "Manderlay" can be clearly understood as a polemic on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, with Grace as the stand-in for the Bush administration's dreams of remaking the Middle East into an oasis for Western-style democracy. For better or worse (some would argue worse), von Trier throws in a collage of photos over the end credits representing almost 100 years of racism in America (just in case American viewers are suffering from collective amnesia). Von Trier goes further though, ultimately suggesting that those who are oppressed by racism often play an active role in their own oppression. Why? Von Trier finds his answer in the fears and anxieties about safety and security that seem to overwhelm all other considerations. He may be right. The third and final film in the trilogy, "Washington" is set to begin filming later this year.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=12773&reviewer=402
originally posted: 02/11/06 16:58:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2005 Austin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2006 Portland Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/08/09 Carol Baker another dogville that is for the dogs. How stupid 2 stars
11/03/08 Shaun Wallner Well made. 4 stars
1/30/06 james So P.C. it makes you yawn before it even begins 1 stars
11/15/05 Mr Vengeance ! 5 stars
11/14/05 Dora An insightful masterpiece 5 stars
11/14/05 Zurro better than dogville (and it is difficult) 5 stars
9/17/05 Daniel Leech Enlightening and frightening 5 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  27-Jan-2006
  DVD: 08-Aug-2006

UK
  03-Mar-2006

Australia
  30-Nov-2006




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