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Swayze shines in the thoughtful yet overly optimistic City of Joy

City of Joy
Starring Patrick Swayze, Om Puri,
and Pauline Collins.

By Robert Cavicchio
City of Joy is based on Dominique Lapierre's true account of the experiences of the lives of the underprivileged in Calcutta, India. The book is billed as "an epic of love, heroism, and hope in the India of Mother Teresa."Unfortunately, the film moves too fast to be effective at creating these emotions. As usually happens when long books are condensed into two-hour movies, too much is lost in the transition for the story to be complete.

Still, City of Joy is not a failure. Given the inherent restraints of film, it is a pretty good job. As always, the visual medium doesn't simply restrict; it also allows creative freedom along different dimensions. Director Roland Joff takes advantage of this opportunity from the outset. Even before the opening credits roll, we're treated to a stylized, sinister scene in which American doctor Max Lowe (Patrick Swayze) decides he doesn't have the strength it takes to deal with the sights he's forced to confront every day. Music, lighting, camera angle, and slow-motion footage combine to make a powerful image out of Swayze's escape from the operating room. This is by far my favorite sequence. There are other stylistic shots in the film, but nothing that hits so dramatically and so effectively.

"Max Magic," as he later comes to be called by some of the City of Joy residents, goes abroad "looking for enlightenment."He winds up in Calcutta, in a slum district known as the City of Joy, where he is soon beaten and robbed. This means he's also stranded until he can get some money sent to him, and thanks to the complications involved in getting things into and out of Calcutta, this process takes much longer than he would like. While there, he comes to know Joan Bethel (Pauline Collins), an Irish woman who runs a clinic that does what it can to aid the City of Joy residents in their struggles against poverty and disease. "I'm not very good at loving just one person," she tells him. "Seems so much better when you spread it around." When she discovers that Max is a "non-practicing doctor," as he puts it, she tries several times to convince him to help out at the clinic. But Max has become such a cynic that he refuses to see the value of hope in a disease-ridden society. Then an emergency arises, and though he claims not to see the point of bringing to the City of Joy another mouth to feed, Max nevertheless comes to the rescue of a woman in labor. Afterwards he's still reluctant, but Joan manages to persuade him to come to the clinic.

Hasari Pal (Om Puri) is a peasant who has brought his family to the city from a nearby village after losing his farm to moneylenders. After appealing to "the godfather," a local mafia racketeer who gets rich by extorting the poor, Hasari gets a job pulling one of the man's rickshaws. However, before long he must contend with a revolt against the godfather and the loss of his job, both of which would not have occurred if not for the interference of the American doctor. On top of that, he has to scrape up enough money to pay his daughter's dowry.

The result is an intelligent, thoughtful story about what it means to be right and what it means to be free. Some liberties seem to have been taken with the facts, but those aren't detrimental to the film. It is true that some details of the plot are occasionally glossed over, making the story difficult to follow, but on the whole these details are minor. The essence of the story is there.

The biggest complaint I have with the film is that it is far too happy. The point is that the people in the City of Joy never give up hope and always have another smile. Yet how can we understand this if we're not brought down with them and made to feel the horrors that they live? They must feel pain, and it's hard to see much evidence of that. Again, this may be because the film simply moves too quickly. Yes, terrible things happen to these characters, but too often it seems as if they're only in passing. Hasari really doesn't have much trouble finding work; and though he gets tuberculosis, it doesn't seem to be much of a problem. There's plenty of hatred toward the lepers, but we don't see them much. And this may be my American bias, but I find it hard to believe either that every one of these impoverished people is schooled in English, or that Max knows Hindi. If he does, it should be mentioned, because Swayze's character comes across as a bit of an arrogant American, and I'm not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on this score. The reason he gives Joan for having quit medicine is, "I don't like sick people."

But Max has his good points, too. He's good with children, and he eventually comes to love the clinic and his friends. And to my surprise, Swayze actually adds some personality to the character -- a touch of emotion and just the right amount of wit instead of the silly dumbfounded expressions he often exhibited in Ghost and Dirty Dancing. When he discovers that one woman is selling the milk she's supposed to be feeding her baby, he gives her an extra can and says, "Give it to the kid, or I'll kill you," with a smile and such a mixture of good will and earnestness that I was forced to smile myself. Om Puri is excellent in his role, and the rest of the actors portraying the Pal family also turn in good performances.

The movie makes you feel pretty good. It's uplifting, but not as much as it could be because the attempts at evoking pathos in the audience falls somewhat short of success. Therefore you don't feel the satisfaction of the characters as keenly as you might. But there are some nicely directed pieces, a little humor, and a few things to think about. And it never lost my attention.