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Broken Bonds

One is a young Russian girl whose father moves to America in 1927 to seek a better life for his family. The other is a Hungarian infant whose parents and older sister flee to the United States in 1950 to evade totalitarian rule. These characters have different stories, but their fates are the same: They spend years separated from their families, and are so haunted by feelings of abandonment that they are barely able to form identities. Their victimization is a poignant echo of the oppression that ran rampant in Eastern Europe in the 20th century.

The Russian girl is the protagonist of The Man Who Cried (Universal), a bloodless drama featuring a quartet of top indie-film stars, and the Hungarian infant is the heart of An American Rhapsody (Paramount), an elegant picture based on its director’s real-life experiences. The films, which just hit video after bombing in theaters, treat similar stories differently: The intoxicating visuals of The Man Who Cried are thwarted by narrative pretensions, whereas An American Rhapsody succeeds by evading pretension in every possible way.

The Man Who Cried is the latest picture from British director Sally Potter, best known for the gender-bending Orlando. The movie’s impressive attributes include an insinuating score performed by the Kronos Quartet and glossy cinematography by Sacha Vierny, but its biggest selling point is its cast: Christina Ricci, Cate Blanchett, John Turturro, Johnny Depp. The picture starts promisingly enough, with nearly silent vignettes depicting the heroine’s childhood in Russia and her desperate emigration to England. But as soon as the movie shifts to the heroine as an adult, the momentum drains out of the story.

Suzie (Ricci) gets a job singing alongside another Russian-born chorine (Blanchett) in a British opera company that just recruited an egomaniacal Italian singer (Turturro) to star in several productions. So begins a convoluted romantic entanglement in which Suzie’s friend seduces the Italian, while Suzie courts a soulful gypsy (Depp). Potter’s storytelling is vague and unfocused, and Ricci’s somnambulant performance adds to the sluggishness of the piece. Blanchett’s expat flamboyance is credible, and Turturro’s bitchiness is amusing, but the elements never gel. By the time Suzie tries to reconnect with her long-lost dad, the drama of her family separation has been insurmountably diluted.

Peculiarly, the heroine of An American Rhapsody also is named Suzie. After an effective black-and-white prologue depicting her parents’ flight from Hungary, during which the baby is left behind out of fear that her cries might alert border guards to the family’s illegal crossing, the movie shifts into a dreamy passage depicting the young girl’s idyllic life with foster parents in the Hungarian countryside. Perhaps because writer-director Eva Gardos based the story on her own life, the details of the Hungarian scenes have the luminous magic of childhood memories. So when the 6-year-old girl is put on a U.S.-bound plane for a reunion with her parents, her separation from her Hungarian guardians packs an emotional punch.

Once the child arrives in America, Gardos stages a compelling sequence in which Suzie mistakes her new family for friendly hosts, believing herself to be on vacation. It’s wrenching to watch Suzie’s parents (Tony Goldwyn and Nastassja Kinski) try to make their own child love them, and it’s painful to see how the simple tensions between Suzie and her Americanized older sister fester. While Gardos underlines the joys of living in a free society, she slyly points to the crassness of America in the 1950s, which accentuates why Suzie misses the rustic pleasures of her lost home.

About an hour into the movie, Ghost World’s Scarlett Johansson takes over the Suzie role to depict how teen angst leads the rebellious Suzie to finagle a ticket back to Hungary. While Johannson nails Suzie’s put-upon quality, she’s flat when delivering unironic lines, so much of the heavy lifting in dramatic scenes is done by Kinski, who acquits herself nicely. The best work of these two actors combines with Gardos’ disciplined touch and keeps An American Rhapsody from ever devolving into a soap opera; the director never loses touch with the story she’s trying to tell, so every scene builds on the one that came before and sets the stage for the next one.

The cumulative effect of this meticulous process is felt when 15-year-old Suzie returns to Hungary, a visit that leads to several life-changing discoveries. Whereas The Man Who Cried wastes its potential on excessive visuals and superfluous subplots, An American Rhapsody sings a moving ballad to those cleaved from their homes by the vagaries of geopolitical tumult.

—Peter Hanson

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