This review was corrected on Oct. 26, 2004.
A soul-searching Vanessa Redgrave brings credibility, as few actresses could, to Wallace Shawn’s monologue about how a well-to-do Westerner comes to terms with world poverty, exploitation and Karl Marx, in “The Fever.” Radical politics have rarely been debated so openly, though a cameo by Michael Moore should give viewers a clue to the film’s outspoken tone. The HBO Films banner, which has flown over successful experiments like “American Splendor” and “Elephant,” should help position this hard-to-classify, stirringly performed but uneven film for limited theatrical release and many fest screenings.
Taking a risky leap beyond his tame murder drama “Uninvited,” Carlo Nero mixes a Molotov of fiction, animation and filmed theater in his second directing effort, which originated in mother Redgrave’s London readings of the play five years ago. Rather than mask its origins, the Shawn-Nero screenplay essentially illustrates them, switching between the story and direct, into-the-camera monologue. The effect is startling and, when it works, powerfully uncomfortable.
A woman (Redgrave) feverishly awakens in a hotel room in an unnamed, war-torn country. As she struggles to remember what brought her there, she reviews her life.
The privileged child of well-to-do parents, she grew up surrounded by toys. A fast-moving animated sequence lithely describes how, while learning to be a consumer, she was introduced to ballet, music and traveling, and protected from “bad people in bad neighborhoods.”
Her age of innocence stretches into a long, satisfying, professional life, until one day she is given a copy of “Das Kapital.” As a plot turn, this is nothing if not original, and Nero brings it off surprisingly well by illustrating Marxist concepts like the fetishism of commodities with simple cartoons. Thus the viewer is made to ponder, along with the heroine, the price of a coat; where money comes from and where it goes; and why some people make it much more easily than others.
The first part of the film is engagingly fresh. Tormented questions give way to fictional scenes which trace her increasing discomfort as an upper-class Englishwoman. Somehow Marx keeps popping up wherever she goes: to a swank party where a diplomat (Rade Sherbedgia) talks about revolution in his country, or at a bus stop where she hears about a delightful foreign country that has just undergone a people’s revolution. All things conspire to make her buy a ticket to this workers’ paradise.
But once there, the film starts to go out of focus. A knowledgeable American newsman (a relaxed and amusing Moore) makes her feel guilty about eating ice-cream because starving babies need milk. If this argument seems bizarre, the tone slips into near-parody when she flies to a neighboring country ruled by a military dictatorship and meets an angry young woman (Angelina Jolie) who reveals she is a freedom fighter packing a gun under her jacket. Script’s determination to remain generic and not specify where the action is taking place undercuts the scene’s credibility.
Redgrave, on the other hand, fully exploits the protag’s richly detailed background to create a real Londoner who could conceivably be traversing a moral crisis. It’s a relief when the film switches back to her feverish reflections on her unwitting role in maintaining world injustice and the status quo. The ending, in which her thinking turns around again, is a performance tour-de-force for the intense Redgrave.
Editing is brisk and cleverly accommodates the animation sequences, while production values stay high through multiple location shifts. Mark Moriarty’s lighting gives pic a sophisticated look, and Claudio Capponi’s classic score applies soothing balm to the feverish dialogue.