It was my original intention to review Filth and Wisdom without ever mentioning Madonna’s name, but given how much the pop icon’s past and present—like her sense of image—informs every frame of the film, to have done so would have been foolish. More so than Angelina Jolie, whose screen performances have become near impossible to scrutinize without also grappling with her immense superstardom, Madonna brings considerable baggage to her feature-length directorial debut, which tells the story of a close-knit group of down-and-out London artists simply trying to get by—a story that not only suggests an elaboration on the lives of Madonna’s “Hung Up” dancers but a rebuke to Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Critics have fallen hook, line and sinker for Woody Allen’s trite vision of pretty people bumping uglies in fashionable Catalonia, lavishing the film with the sort of write-ups you’d expect to read in US Weekly and Travel and Leisure. (Even some of the most sensible film writers in the world have noted how shooting in Spain seems to have invigorated and liberated Allen—almost as if they were praising him for having had a bowel movement.) When jet-setting through posh European locales and seeing Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson make out is enough to give a movie a free pass, you know film culture has reached some sort of dead end. Indeed, so successful is the film’s luxe patina that Allen’s sexual and gender politics—like his repugnant reduction of the Mediterranean to a “lusty” type—have gone completely ignored. But Filth and Wisdom isn’t interested in creating such an obnoxious show of distraction.
Except for Cruz’s spitfire Maria Elena, the women of Vicky Cristina Barcelona all second-guess and run from their feelings, whereas the ladies of Filth and Wisdom always act on them, regardless of whether those feelings are driven by career ambition, vanity or jealousy. They have the will of Judy Davis’s Sally from Allen’s great Husbands and Wives (and the Madonna that once justified: “Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another”). When Sally said, “Metabolically it’s not my rhythm,” she was being decisive even though she was copping to personal limitation—a complex enough vision of a woman you don’t see anymore in Allen’s movies. We see this gumption in Juliette (Vicky McClure), a pharmacy assistant who longs to go to Africa to help children orphaned by AIDS and screams that no one can stop her from achieving that dream, and we see it in the frustrated Indian housewife who flings rice at her children and screams, “Dinner is served!,” before scurrying upstairs to weep over a picture of herself when she was younger—her tears an expression of her desire to be valued as a wife, mother and woman even though she recognizes that’s all she will ever be.
Madonna’s greatest interviewer, Norman Mailer, once said that the autobiographical writer should conserve the well of personal experience from which they get their inspiration or risk running out of stories to tell. Madonna has accessed her past and present from different angles with every new album and music video she has produced but seems to have brought so much of herself to Filth and Wisdom one wonders if she has another film left in her. Each of the female characters in the film seem to represent Madonna at a different state in her life: the youth who came to New York to rule the world, the mother flabbergasted by her new sense of purpose, the wife struggling with her alienation from her husband, the woman struggling to live for someone other than herself. But if this is the beginning and end of Madonna’s directorial career, it would be fine, because Filth and Wisdom presents a sweet, grimy, convincing enough portrait of people struggling to make something of themselves—like Holly (Holly Weston), an aspiring ballerina who takes a job at a strip joint that seems to only play tracks from Erotica (that’s not a complaint, by the way). Madonna isn’t after the luridness of her Sex book, something that becomes clear when Holly, while having dinner with Professor Flynn (Richard E. Grant), admits that maybe she wants the burger she ordered to spoil her figure.
Holly’s story is, like everyone else’s, tied to the idea of art and body as commerce. We see this in A.K., played by Eugene Hutz as a variation of himself, a musician who makes money as a fetish escort and who goes around London trying to convince people to listen to his demo (here Gogol Bordello’s last album, Super Taranta!). Like Madonna’s Dita, he is all sexual provocation and wisdom, and his narration to us—the consumer—guides us through the struggles of his friends and neighbors. Madonna and co-writer Dan Cadan may be accused of hectoring through A.K.’s words, essentially a compendium of Madge’s philosophical and spiritual perceptions, maybe even using his direct-camera address to give the film a clearer sense of direction, except A.K. is much kinder to us than Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s faceless narrator. Madonna avoids Allen’s brittle condescension by connecting her sense of wisdom to a tradition of Russian storytelling and folklore, and as such the difference between Allen and Madonna’s films becomes the difference between knowledge received from an aloof college professor and a playful clown.
Scraggly and aimless, a little cartoonish but highly personable, like Gogol Bordello’s music or the Bulgarian Bar on New York City’s Lower East Side where Hutz occasionally spins his infectious gypsy beats, Filth and Wisdom is a doodle of a film that doesn’t exactly look as if it’s been crafted by the same woman who has brought us glossy danceathons like “Ray of Light” and “Hung Up.” But Madonna is still very much inside her characters, even the blind Flynn, an author who wants to write but doesn’t because he doesn’t know how and who sits inside his apartment like a wilting flower, haunted by the scent of the books he can no longer read. Compare him to Bardem’s father in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a man who refuses to create even though he perfectly can because he wants to punish the world. Both have been made in their maker’s recent image: Madonna’s character gives while Allen’s takes away.