One Tough Cell

The Dhamma Brothers exposes an experiment gone awry

The Dhamma Brothers

Prison, we’re told, is the only growth industry this country has left (that depressing assertion dates back to before the push for “green” business initiatives; no wonder the government jumped on that bandwagon). Guess at the next big penal trade show, they could hawk DVDs of The Dhamma Brothers, a new documentary that has one foot in the cellblock, the other in the religious-inspirational camp. The topic is a 2002 experiment by the W.E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama — a grim maximum-security facility filled with lifers and death-row denizens — in which a Vipassana meditation course was held for the hardcore inmates. Most of the men shown are young murderers; many are nonwhite and presumably poor, here to be warehoused until they die. They’re not going anywhere, and they’ve got lots of time. So why not?

Well, there’s the Christianity thing. This is the Deep South Bible Belt, and Buddhist-derived meditation is viewed with suspicion and as an alien invader by both prison staff and during some person-in-the-street interviews. You could point out that a Bible-soaked environment didn’t stop any of these fellows from getting caught up in violence and homicide, but there you are. Convinced the meditation program isn’t evangelical Buddhism sneaking treacherously in through the back door, like creationists on a school board, the warden advocates the program.

The controversial 10-day course takes just a few minutes of screen time in the film. Hard to tell whether the filmmakers, respecting the privacy of the sessions, restrained from spilling Vipassana trade secrets or just surrendered to the ancient wisdom that tells us silent meditation isn’t the most action-packed subject for cinema. A lot of the film is talking-head stuff, inmates speaking glowingly about their life-changing initiation as “Dhamma Brothers” and occasionally flashing back to the crimes and tragedies that landed them in stir in the first place. They are unfailingly polite and as profanity-free as any defense attorney could wish — great testimony to the success of Vipassana meditation. The villainous element is instead some unspecified, faceless, nameless Jesus-o-crats, who seek to shut the program down for religious reasons, while its backers argue that the Vipassna training is strictly secular.

More religion, not less of it, might have given this documentary extra “Time for Good Behavior.” How about a Big House throwdown between Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, that other favorite ministry behind barbed wire and guard towers? How are these cosmologies regulated and used in the grim environment behind bars? Which are proving transformative and redemptive in the man-made purgatory? When you think about it, both a monastery and a prison share similar features: spartan communal environments, highly structured and disciplined routines, sexual abstinence (at least in the conventional sense), minimal distractions and, of course, cells. Why shouldn’t prisons look toward the techniques used by temple retreats, if their mission is truly “correctional” and about enforcing moral order? After all, it’s not like we have too few prisons to experiment with nowadays. — Charles Cassady Jr.

The Dhamma Brothers, Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, August 2

The Last Mistress
Controversial director Catherine Breillat ambitiously brings Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s 19th-century once-immoral novel to life in this torrid adaptation about love, passion, temptation and scandal. The Last Mistress is set in France during a time when the politeness of Parisian aristocrats masked the dark, lustful actions of a more private sector. Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) is a charming libertine whose scandalous past as a womanizer becomes the talk of the town. After he decides to change his life around by marrying the beautiful and pure Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), Hermangarde’s grandmother, the Comtesse d’Artelles (Yolande Moreau), must find out if the young man’s love is true. While she questions him, Ryno reveals the story of his intense affair with the fiery Vellini (Asia Argento), his independent Spanish mistress, whose 10-year romance with Ryno consisted of an erotic love-hate relationship.

Although Hermangarde’s virginal innocence intrigues Ryno, Vellini has bewitched the doomed lover, at least physically. When the sultry seductress won’t let go so easily, it’s up to Ryno to make an impulsive decision between lust and love. Breillat paints an exquisite picture by creating a film that’s both graceful and shocking, unlike most dull period pieces. Argento steams up the screen, alluring the audience with her sensuality in every scene. Playing the “ugly mutt,” Argento’s masculinity somehow blends with Ait Aattou’s femininity to create one smoldering romance (including various sexually explicit positions, might I add). Although you may feel uneasy watching the movie at times, this is definitely one saucy and sophisticated affair to remember. — Lauren Yusko

Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
Before James Bond, there was Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, aka OSS agent 117. The character first appeared in a French novel by Jean Bruce in 1949 and starred in literally hundreds of books as well as several films before going into hibernation in the early ’90s. Now de La Bath has returned in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, but this time as a parody of himself and other fictional cold-war-era secret agents.

OSS 117 actually finds a new angle on the spy-spoof genre, steering well clear of the gross-out humor of the Austin Powers series. Most of the film’s jokes center around de La Bath’s sexism and colonialist disdain for foreign cultures, both of which backfire when he gets sent on a mission to Egypt. Alternately aiding and hindering de La Bath (Jean Dujardin) in his mission are femmes fatales Princess Al Tarouk (Aure Atika) and Larmina (Bérénice Bejo). The world these characters inhabit has been painstakingly crafted to look as much like a late ’50s/early ’60s Technicolor thriller as possible, right down to the obvious process shots anytime someone is driving a car. That’s fun for a film geek like me, but I wish as much effort had been put into the screenplay.

OSS 117 is a likable enough film to a point, but it never rises above the level of pleasantness. The jokes elicit smiles, maybe a chuckle or two, but no big laughs. That would be OK if the screenplay at least offered a gripping spy caper on which to hang its gags. Unfortunately, the plot just meanders around for an hour and a half without ever jelling into anything interesting — a deficiency further compounded by the film’s slow pacing. On the plus side, all the actors do a great job, with Dujardin in particular showing an undeniable screen charisma. I’m not saying OSS 117 should have stayed undercover. For audiences seeking a spy spoof that values wit over scatological humor, I’m sure this movie will have some appeal. I just think the world’s first superspy deserves a little better. — Robert Ignizio

Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre

Woman on the Beach
Hong Sang-soo’s Turning Gate, from 2002, is one of my favorite foreign-language films of this decade. A pitch-perfect young-adult romantic comedy, the tragically little-seen Gate deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as François Truffaut’s ineffable Nouvelle Vague classic, Stolen Kisses. Of course, Truffaut and other French New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer have always been Hong’s major stylistic influences. The South Korean auteur’s latest, Woman on the Beach, continues many of the same themes explored in his 2003 festival hit, Woman is the Future of Man. Once again, two men verbally joust while vying for the heart (and body) of the same woman. Kim (Kim Seung-woo) is a film director who becomes enamored with the musician girlfriend (Ko Hyun-joung’s Moon-sook) of his production designer (Chang-wook, played by Kim Tae-woo) while the three are holed up at a beach resort in the dead of winter.

But wait. Moon assures Kim that she isn’t really the married Chang’s lover; they’re really just “friends.” That window of opportunity is all the incentive Kim needs to do whatever he can to woo the nubile lass, who, by the way, would really love to write the score for his latest movie. Meanwhile, Chang stews miserably on the sidelines, watching sparks fly between his boss and Moon. What makes Hong’s romantic comedies — and most of his films truly are rom-coms at heart — so memorable is the undercurrent of melancholy lurking beneath nearly every scene. The keen insight and gentle humor that Hong brings to exploring relationships between men and women mark him as the logical successor to the 88-year-old Rohmer. With a little bit of luck, perhaps Hong will enjoy as long and fruitful a career behind the camera. — Milan Paurich

Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, At 7 p.m. Friday, August 1, and at 9 p.m. Saturday, August 2

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