between strangers (2002)


director: edoardo ponti

sophia loren, gerard depardieu, mira sorvino, deborah kara unger

It's a small world after all, or at least that's the message that drives Edoardo Ponti's debut film, Between Strangers, a drama set in an undisguised but unrecognizable Toronto, about pivotal moments in the lives of three women. Beyond this simple platitude, there's not much more to the film except for some undistinguished lunges at filmic poetry, the kind of music-drenched, fussily-edited sequences that try to paper over the yawning gaps in decidedly less-then-robust scripts.

The leading light in Ponti's trio of unhappy women is Olivia, a woman unhappily married to a crippled former runner, which is only a hint of the sledgehammer imagery employed by Ponti. Olivia is played by Ponti's mother, Sophia Loren, and there's something diminishing - both for the actress and the audience - about such a radiant screen personality forced into the character of a joyless drudge. It's a mark of the film's particular lifelessness that Loren isn't allowed transcend Olivia's all-but-defeated demeanor the way she did in, say, Ettore Scola's 1977 A Special Day.

Even worse off is Deborah Kara Unger as a renowned cellist who has left her family to hunt down the father who beat her mother to death, upon his release from prison. Unger's whole performance is delivered in a monotone, and we're never given a chance to discover a hint of sympathy for a character whose motivations seem both cruel and inexplicable. As a photojournalist devastated by a moral crisis after covering a war, Mira Sorvino almost manages to bring the film to life. For a very brief moment, it's possible to imagine a really good film that might have been made solely about Sorvino's character, but that moment passes quickly.

The lives of all three women intersect, but only in the most forced way, through plotted coincidence and throwaway secondary characters. Art, or a tired cliché of the irrepressible truth revealed by an artist's radiantly sensitive soul, is another very preciously drawn link. Besides the photographer and the cellist, Loren's Olivia is a frustrated artist whose escape from her barren marriage begins when she discovers a long-lost daughter (Wendy Crewson) who's become a sculptor. That the sculpture shown in the film is really terrible kitsch, put reverently on display in the vast outdoor park(!) surrounding the Royal Ontario Museum* - a mere hint of the implausible reimagining of Toronto for the film's plodding purposes - gives you some idea of the middlebrow sentiments that lie at the heart of a hopeless film

* A BIT OF LOCAL BACKGROUND: The building standing in for the ROM is the R.C. Harris filtration plant, an art deco structure in the city's east end, set on a vast, multi-levelled lawn overlooking the lake. The ROM is actually a conventional-looking pre-war museum building on a tightly-bound lot in the middle of the city, next to the university. Additionally, the ROM is even more like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Natural History in New York, and doesn't do shows of living artists, never mind the kind of third-rate representational sculpture that, in Between Strangers, is supposed to be yearning and brilliant stuff.

Would a film set in London have the Battersea Power Station stand in for the Victoria and Albert Museum? Or the Fresh Kills landfill be made to stand in for Central Park? Toronto is always being shot as New York or Chicago or any number of places; it's a shame that, allowed to play itself for once, it's still unrecognizable.