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Moulin Rouge

Ambitious, daring, energetic, and entertaining —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Always Brando is rarely watchable.

The Documentary

Always Brando is an odd concoction. It starts out as a documentary about director Ridha Behi’s plans to make a movie with Marlon Brando before morphing into a full-blown fictional drama that is a modified version of that proposed film, ultimately made after Brando’s death.

Things begin with Behi recalling when he first saw Brando on the big screen, some 40 years ago. He was captivated and became a lifelong fan. Behi wrote Brando and eventually struck up a relationship with the legendary actor and political activist. But, without going into much detail on the development of this relationship, it sounds as if getting Brando’s attention was fairly easy.

At the time, Brando was flagging in career and health. And, for whatever reason, Brando was intrigued by Behi’s proposed project. Behi posits that perhaps Brando saw one of Behi’s earlier movies. Fine. If this one is any barometer, though, scoffing would be a more suitable reaction.

Perhaps the project fit in with Brando’s political views. Known for his support of Native Americans, Palestine, and other causes, the prospect of raising a ruckus by making a movie with a Tunisian – an Arab – in a post-9/11 world probably gave Brando some sense of satisfaction. That’s the movie’s preferred angle, anyway.

The proposed movie would star Anis Raache, who looks a lot like young Brando. And Brando would be his co-star. Raache, who in reality is an actor, was to play a character who had never acted. For what it’s worth, Raache is good at playing a guy who can’t act. The role seems to be a perfect fit.

The Conceit

Behi, who is described as a “master filmmaker” and an “international filmmaker,” should not be confused with other internationally-renowned names along the lines of Bertolucci, Polanski, Bekmambetov, or Spielberg. Behi’s biography is an interesting read, one that boasts of numerous film festival entries, including Venice and Cannes, as well as working with Julie Christie and Ben Gazzara. But there’s something about the biography that rings hollow. Much like the material presented in Always Brando, the bio gives off a vibe that perhaps Behi is something less in reality, that very little is what it seems.

What becomes irksome about this movie is its conflicted attitude toward America. Behi talks about filmmakers taking advantage of Tunisia’s people, dignity, sand, and sun. No doubt Brando would be the ideal American crusader to right historical wrongs.

According to Behi, the people of Tunisia were humiliated by Raiders of the Lost Ark, specifically the scene in which Indiana Jones shoots the swordsman in Cairo (the movie was filmed in Tunisia, not Egypt). The offensive clip is included in the documentary portion to either entertain or offend again.

The scene was an affront to Muslims, according to Behi. From the American perspective, it was simply a funny bit, a roof-raising moment in which the hero escapes a big bad guy. Don’t forget, that was also way back in 1981. Most Americans wouldn’t have had a clue the swordsman was Muslim. He was big, intimidating, and brandished a huge sword. In the American view, it’s the ultimate, impromptu take on the ol’ adage about bringing a knife to a gun fight.

That careless tone, Behi asserts, changed after 9/11. Movies like Black Hawk Down, Green Zone, and Syriana started painting Muslims in a more serious light. Okay. That argument works, to a certain degree; however, there are numerous ways in which Raiders has nothing in common with those other - much more serious - titles. And it also calls into question the value of Behi’s proposed project if cinematic legitimacy was already being bestowed on the region.

The Drama

There is some unintended humor in Behi recreating his conversations with Brando. In mock documentary style (which is not to say mockumentary style), Behi is shown sitting at the foot of Brando’s bed, as seen from Brando’s point of view, complete with an oxygen tube dangling in front of the camera.

After some flirtations with true documentary aspirations, the movie abruptly shifts to Tunisia and without warning the bulk of the movie is pure dramatization.

But it’s a dramatization of what exactly? The movie they wanted to make? Well, it turns out to be a “reconceived” version of the movie Brando was to make. It’s a fantasy time warp hybrid, a behind-the-scenes drama of making a movie (which is entirely fictional since – hello – the real Brando movie was never made) merged with the (fictional) storyline the proposed movie was to have told. As for that fictional movie, in this version, it’s about a young man who a Hollywood producer promises to introduce to Marlon Brando and turn him into a big star, just like Brando.

Of course, young Raache has to sleep with the male producer if he really expects that dream to come true. Stories of confronting moral corruption can be extremely inspirational. But not here. What is so mind-blowing about this movie is the chutzpah it has to condemn the American movie business while blatantly pandering to it.

If shooting a big, bad, threatening swordsman is offensive, then what will Behi’s fellow Tunisians think about this movie’s themes of homosexuality and prostitution, with some gratuitous bare breasts thrown in for good measure? If the point is that Hollywood is a corrupting influence, then so be it. But it’s extremely hard to buy that what is presented as the story that was going to be filmed with Brando really is, at least essentially, the story Brando agreed to make.

In other words, it’s a thematic mess of fiction and reality. No matter how valid – or invalid – Behi’s criticisms of Hollywood may be, it’s lost in absolutely third-rate filmmaking and even worse storytelling.

This movie is morally and spiritually bankrupt. Behi is cashing in on Brando’s name to make a good old-fashioned American dollar. What makes this exercise all the more specious is a documentary scene in which Behi is shown handling audio tapes - really old school audio tapes - purported to contain his conversations with Brando in 2004. Really? Then why not focus on them more and give the movie some legitimate value?

Ed Wood of Arabia

It’s Behi’s word against Brando’s cold dead body. There are no third-party validations to Behi’s claims, no producers or other participants in the original production other than Raache, who does look like a young Brando, although he probably did more so seven years ago, when the movie was originally going to be filmed.

Regardless of whether his claims are legitimate or not, all of that gibberish takes a back seat to this movie’s real source of humiliation: The acting in this movie is atrocious. Laughable. Unworthy of the big screen. Poor subtitles riddled with typos further diminish the movie’s already limited credibility.

The sad, unfortunate end game of all this is the perception that Behi is delusional, a man who sees himself as David Lean when in reality he has more kinship with Ed Wood, the notoriously awful director behind bad masterpieces like Plan 9 from Outer Space.

There’s a sense that the movie really does have a worthwhile story to tell, that there’s some information to impart about Brando and his mysterious ways. But calling this movie “Always Brando” is in itself deceptive.

Cinema can create dreams and catastrophe, the director intones during the documentary. Unfortunately for Behi, his filmmaking dream is an audience’s catastrophe.