The inability of Hector Babenco’s Pixote and Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados to muster the same kind of Oscar attention Fernando Meirelles’s City of God garnered two years ago was confirmation that American film culture prefers its social realism varnished to the point that historical and socioeconomic truth is eradicated. At the time of its release, it was easy to appreciate the film’s narrative juggling act and tempo of Meirelles’s direction, which seemed to jive with the helter-skelter lives of the story’s characters. In retrospect, though, it seems as if these lives are superfluous to Meirelles’s role as aesthetic ringmaster. Digitalia, not realism, was the driving force here, and City of God wasn’t some insider peek at life in the favelas by some full-throated town crier but some cracked-out concoction by a Martin Scorsese upstart shipped into the region—bound and gagged inside a crate—who wakes up inebriated with a primo budget and high-powered camera at his disposal.
For his wildly anticipated follow-up to City of God, Meirelles shipped himself to the African continent to film an adaptation of The Constant Gardener by John Le Carré, the famous author of white-people-in-exotic-lands spy novels like The Russia House and The Tailor of Panama. In a role originally offered to Nicole Kidman, star of Anthony Minghella’s blacked-out Civil War drama Cold Mountain and Sydney Pollack’s phony social studies project The Interpreter, Rachel Weisz stars as Tessa, a devoted activist who marries mild-mannered career diplomat Justin (Ralph Fiennes) and goes to Kenya to fight the good fight against drug companies testing their AIDS cocktails on a sick, unsuspecting African populace. When Tessa and her loyal assistant Arnold (Hubert Koundé) are brutally murdered, Justin develops a bleeding heart and sets out to continue the job his wife’s faceless enemies wouldn’t let her do.
In the sense that the plight of the African people comes second to Justin’s schematic anarchist awakening and the story’s rote spy-game shenanigans, Constant Gardener is rather turgid and misguided for something that’s supposed to inspire self-righteous anger. Though not as preposterously enraged as The Interpreter, the film still chooses to fan the flames of liberal guilt from a safe distance. Ooga-booga Africa is brought to the United Nations building in New York City in The Interpreter. In Constant Gardener, the whites go to Africa, but they scarcely approach their black hosts. Meirelles applies a coat of City of God primer to the Kenyan landscape (sweaty, cotton-candied colors that bring to mind fashion magazine spreads of exotic locales and pulsating tribal beats to exaggerate the sense of danger); children stare into the camera, giving audiences the impression they’re taking a wild safari ride through an African pastoral and throwing alms at the captive masses.
In this way, the film is wildly condescending, and if it hardly registers as a socially-conscious indictment of dehumanizing corporate abuses, it’s because Meirelles is concerned with the story’s “romantic thriller” elements first, exaggerated controversies second. It’s easy-breezy, pretzeled syntax isn’t even daring, existing only to augment Justin’s sense of emotional loss: Goaded at every turn by preachy maxims (“No drug company does anything for free” and “This whole machine is driven by guilt”), he’s not fighting for anyone but himself, following a trail of breadcrumbs straight to the cross. By the time we see the same shampoo-commercial sex scene he shares with Tessa for a second time, it becomes abundantly clear that Meirelles regards white interests as highly as the drug companies.