Early on, Michael Cristofer focusses on an opera, "Faust,"
being presented in Havana before the cultural elite of Cuba.
After the first act, one particularly supercilious woman sitting in
the boxes dismisses the performance as "cheap melodrama."
"But entertaining theater," responds her companion. At this point
you could swear that someone up there in the reserved seats,
whether Antonio Banderas or Angelina Jolie, gave a quick wink
to the movie audience as if to say, "That's exactly was you can
expect from "Original Sin." The film, based on the novel "Waltz
Into Darkness" by noir writer Cornell Woolrich, shows that the
haughty woman would be right on the money if she were
describing the film instead of the staged performance. "Original
Sin" is a fun story to sit through even with its lingering stretches
not just because there's quite a hot nude scene (which has been
trimmed, so I've heard, to garner just an "R" rating from the
MPAA--and one wonders just how much more these two stars
actually did in the uncut version). The fun lies in the mounting
array of twists and surprises which, together with some solid
lensing by Rodrigo Prieto in various locales of Mexico (which
stands in for Cuba) makes the experience of watching the movie
a must-see for fans of bodice-rippers and less than subtle
melodrama. This is a Harlequin romance for adults, a guilty
pleasure especially for fans of the two engaging stars.
The story begins in a Havana prison unfortunately utilizing a
flashback technique to undercut what could have been a more
surprising climax. Julia Russell (Angelina Jolie) relates her story
to a fascinated monk who is keeping her company on the night
before she is to be garrotted by the Cuban authorities--that is,
before her neck is to be placed in a vise-like structure which, if
she is lucky, will be broken and if not will lead to slow suffocation.
By placing the end of the story right up front, director Cristofer
undercuts its romantic inclinations in part, as we are immediately
aware that Julie has done something terribly wrong to merit such
punishment. Julie has met a coffee baron, Luis Durand (Antonio
Banderas) near his plantation in Santiago de Cuba because Luis,
who does not believe in love (because he obviously had never
met Julie), simply advertised for an American woman to bear his
children, fearing that the local females who knew him might
simply be golddiggers. When a detective, Walter Down (Thomas
Jane), shows up indicating that Julie may be other than she
claims to be, Luis begins to sweat with the realization that this
perfect love that he has been experiencing could be ground down
like the beans that have brought him great wealth.
There's nothing wrong with pure melodrama, movies of the
"Showgirls" type that do not pretend to be art or to parade
complex personalities for us to meditate upon. Though there are
indeed quite a few twists to the story, with persons who are other
than they claim to be, Cristofer does not even pretend to deliver
more than a delightfully trashy romance set in the fanciful
surrounding of Cuba in the year 1900 when the rhythms of life
were slower and people could ride in luxurious trains that granted
its well-heeled users the comforts of home. Thomas Jane does a
particularly fine job as the searching detective, pursuing both
Julie and Luis like a turn-of-the-century Javert, while Banderas
proves that real love surfaces to cynics from people for whom the
emotion might be least generated.
Copyright © 2001 Harvey Karten