Asleep on the Heels of the Bored

Tom Berenger has never been as imposing and remote - or as doggone silly - as he is in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Hector Babenco's new film based on the Peter Matthiessen novel of white mischief in the rain forests of South America. Berenger plays Lewis Moon, the half-white, half-Cheyenne mercenary pilot central to the story, who abandons el norte's view of civilization for the decidedly non-Christian spiritual uplift and simplicity of tribal life in the Amazon jungle. No doubt Berenger's Moon initially could be seen as solid casting; his baritonal growl, elevated cheekbones, and athletic masculinity have helped him in past anti-hero roles - especially as evil Sergeant Barnes in Platoon, far and away his best work. But here, with a bandana-wrapped black mane, crimson skin tint, and later on, with pierced ears holding two turquoise feathers right out of a Gucci catalogue, Berenger emerges as every inch el indio (or rather, the Victor Mature facsimile of an "injun," updated slightly). Which really stinks.

Berenger's performance is emblematic of what's amiss in At Play in the Fields of the Lord - case of thoroughness deployed in the service of crass stupidity. For example, in Berenger's scenes showing full frontal nudity, the director has taken great care to let the audience get a good, close look - once, twice, even three times! - and see that Berenger has had his pubic hair removed in an attempt to better resemble an Amazon Indian's nethermost regions. (Surely Lee Strasberg would be proud of such submersion in character.) Indeed, throughout the interminable tread of this three-hour assault on Matthiessen's already long book, you register this attempt at authenticity so completely that ultimately it highlights the foolhardiness and resulting artificiality of Babenco's misadventure. And you wonder how things could have gone so wrong.

But in light of other movies released during the Eighties either more sensitive to South America's geo-cultural experience or more provocative about how to address them - from slightly better-made features such as RolandJoffe's The Mission and John Boorman's The Emerald Forest to a truly marvelous documentary such as Les Blank's Burden of Dreams - you also wonder whether Matthiessen's 1965 consciousness-raising epic novel was actually worth the bother. The book itself was as politically correct as anything printed during its era; reading it again 27 years later, though, I was struck more by its good intentions and consistent platitudes than by any wealth of information about tribal traditions. Apparently Babenco and French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere sensed this, too, for they have decided to focus the attention of the plot away from the principals and turn the cameras on the fictional Niaruna tribe, whose every ritual, mannerism, and appurtenance we're invited to study as if looking through a proctoscope. Interesting idea; big mistake.

Actually, everything is just one big ritual. Unlike JFK, these three hours are an eternity, and weathering such indefatigable doses of hopping in place, chanting, smoking dope, and spitting goo into hands and rubbing mucilage together must count for more than elucidation. It's purgatory. Especially when, as far as the dancing goes, there isn't an Astaire anywhere near the Amazon that anyone can see. And yet Babenco - whose directing skills have never recovered the peak of inspiration last witnessed in 1980 in Pixote - appears so obsessed with this contrived, "real life" filmmaking that he lets Matthiessen's story (now a skeleton of a tale beside the book) slip right under his feet. And he ends up with nothing.

The film, set in an ambiguous recent past, tries to keep track of two parallel stories. The first is Lewis Moon's self-conversion to the Niarunas via a parachute drop into their village, whereupon he's known as Kisu Mu (after the evil spirit of thunder); the second deals with the Fundamentalist Christian missionaries, two American couples played by John Lithgow, Daryl Hannah, Aidan Quinn, and Kathy Bates, who arrive to renovate a barren mission near the Niaruna village, and to teach scripture and modernize the primitives -

an attempt akin to what the Jesuits did in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries in South America, and equally misguided.

Babenco and Carriere treat the missionaries almost as buffoons. Perhaps there's more than a little sense of post-Swaggart irony in the manner in which these do-gooders are depicted: with the exception of the bespectacled, saintly preacher nicely played by Quinn, the rest are broader than an evening of Andrew Dice Clay. It's all so hackneyed, too: The first thing these religiosos do when they first meet by the bank of the river is rush into a barren shack where they reside temporarily, hold hands, and sing.

The acting is predictably overstated, but the piece de resistance is Kathy Bates, fresh from her Oscar for last year's Misery, who plays Quinn's overly plump, petulant wife. It's the best role because it garners some genuine laughs along with a few unplanned ones. In one scene, she spreads moisturizing lotion over her hands, elbows, and feet (as if she were energetically kneading pizza dough) before getting into bed with Quinn - they're the weirdest lovebirds since Harold and Maude - and we're asked to giggle rather than wince at their quirky mismatchedness. Later, Bates moves from plain Rubenesque to all-out grotesque as her character goes bonkers three-quarters of the way into the story. But in good conscience I should leave it at that. An audience willing to sit through this movie deserves to witness the best of Bates in a state of blissful unpreparedness. Anyway, soon you can rent the video and fast-forward - as fans of pornography are said to do.

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