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Gandhi (Richard Attenborough) 1982

    Gandhi has been bandied about so often as an example of the Academyís tendency to give the Oscar to the safest, most important film that I half expected it to be wholly mawkish and terrible. Itís really not nearly as bad as I feared it might be. Although director Richard Attenborough has a tendency to cut to a reaction shot of a child to demonstrate the emotion he wants the audience to feel from time to time, those probably comprise less than three minutes of the running time, which is over three hours long. Most of that exceptional running time is spent rushing through over fifty years of Indian political leader Gandhiís life, and itís somewhat surprising that the film feels truncated when itís over. Gandhiís wife, for example, is a relatively constant presence near the start of the film, but around the second hour she disappears until near the filmís end, in which she is trotted out one scene before she dies. Gandhi himself feels to get somewhat shorted, since the film seems so worried that we wonít think of him as a Saint that it rarely endows him or any characters that surround him with any sense of doubt. Also, the British politicians that occupy India are almost cartoons in their moustache-twirling evil simplicity. Shame on Attenborough, a Brit himself, for indulging in the stereotype that says Englandís cultural pomposity is a mask for shameless evil.

    These grumbles might sound like huge complaints to levy against a film, but they actually donít have that much impact on the viewing experience. The film is an abbreviated chronicle of Gandhiís exploits, almost like his greatest hits collection, and as a result we donít really mind that it doesnít cover things in depth, since itís shooting for a good deal of breadth. The politics that are in the film are conveyed with a relative simplicity, and I wish there were more scenes of self-doubt among Gandhi or his followers, like the one in which Gandhiís wife refuses to clean a toilet. Still, the streamlined approach to political content keeps us from getting so caught up in it that we canít appreciate the filmís visual pleasures, such as Indiaís well-photographed beauty or the sheer sense of scale in many of the crowd scenes. The film has immaculate production values, and itís no surprise that it swept the Academy Awards. Many have complained that the Best Picture Oscar that year should have gone to the more populist E.T. or Tootsie, but I think the choice in Gandhi is a solid one, as itís a better picture than either of those (though Costa-Gavrasí Missing is probably my favorite of 1982ís nominated films). Though Gandhi is hardly a perfect film, its failures at least tend to be relatively noble ones. The pacing of the film is excellent, and it has an immediacy that belies its length. Ben Kingsleyís performance as Gandhi is both excellent and charismatic, and he disappears completely into the role once he shaves his head. It rarely feels like the stunt performance that it is, though credit must be given to the excellent makeup that physically transforms him. Overall, the filmís status of ďBest PictureĒ is nothing for the Academy to be ashamed of, as there are far worse historical epics (e.g. Braveheart) with which Gandhi shares that title.

* * * 1/2

11-29-01

Jeremy Heilman