The Razor’s Edge
Reviewed by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
Directed by John Byrum
Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment 10/84 DVD/VHS Feature Film
Larry Darrell (Bill Murray) leaves his fiancee, Isabel (Catherine Hicks), in Iowa and heads off with his best friend, Gray (James Keach), to Europe where they serve as ambulance drivers in World War I. He experiences the terrible destructiveness of battle and is profoundly affected by the death of a man who dies saving his life. Returning to the United States, Larry goes into a depression. He eventually tells Isabel: “I got a second chance at life. I am not going to waste it on a big house and a new car every year and a bunch of friends who want a big house and a new car every year.”
Larry decides to spend some time by himself in Paris where Isabel’s wealthy uncle Elliott (Denholm Elliot) has a luxurious home. His quest is to understand the meaning of life. He takes a job as a fish packer and reads a lot of books in his spare time. When Isabel arrives to take him back to America, she finds him to be a different man. He has no interest in a respectable job or a normal life. She leaves him in Paris, realizing that he’ll never be able to give her the prosperous life she desires.
While working as a coal miner, Larry saves the life of another fellow who gives him a copy of the Upanishads and tells him that he should go to India. Larry does just that and meets a resourceful Indian who takes him to Tibet. There the American becomes the student of a lama and serves as a cook in the isolated monastery. During a long retreat by himself in the mountains, Larry comes close to enlightenment. He tells his lama: “It is easy to be a holy man on the top of a mountain.” His teacher believes Larry is ready to return to the world. He advises him: “The path to salvation is narrow and as difficult to walk as a razor’s edge.”
Back in Paris, Larry has many opportunities to put into action the spiritual practices of equanimity, attention, and compassion. Meanwhile, Isabel has married Gray, but they have lost all of their money in the Stock Market crash of 1929. They have two children and are staying with Elliott. Also in Paris is Larry’s childhood friend Sophie (Theresa Russell), who is busy numbing the pain she still feels after losing her husband and child in an automobile accident. Larry and Sophie become lovers, and he gently tries to pull her away from her addiction to alcohol and drugs. When Isabel learns that Larry intends to marry Sophie, she cruelly brings down her friend.
The Razor’s Edge is based on a 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham which was made into a 1946 movie starring Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter (Don’t bother. The 1946 version pretty much sucks – Gar.) John Byrum directs this 1984 version where the questing theme is given ample emotional sweep by the music of Jack Nitzsche. Although Larry’s spiritual quest is delivered simply and without fanfare, the most important dimension of his transformation is demonstrated when he returns to Paris. There his practice of equanimity is unique.
Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg has stated: “Equanimity is a spacious stillness of mind. A radiant calm that allows us to be present fully with all the different changing experiences that constitute our world and our lives.” The film ends on a high and holy note when Larry compassionately bestows upon Elliott in his dying moments a grace that lends him dignity and makes him feel worthwhile. No wonder Larry can, in the last scene of the film, bound up a steep incline of stairs with the energy and delight of someone who isn’t afraid of anything that lies ahead.
The Sheltering Sky
Reviewed by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Warner Home Video 12/90 DVD/VHS Feature Film
R – sexuality, adult situations
Port (John Malkovich) and Kit Moresby (Debra Winger) and George Tunner (Campbell Scott) arrive in Tangier in 1947 after leaving behind the urban delights of post-World War II New York. Port is a composer; his wife, a writer; and their friend, a Long Island socialite. They have come to the North African desert for different reasons. “We’re not tourists, we’re travelers,” Port and Kit explain to their friend. “Tourists are people who think about going home the minute they come, whereas travelers may not come back at all.” Tunner is definitely a tourist, easily irritated by foreign customs and the lack of modern conveniences. The Moresbys, who have been married for 10 years, are travelers on a journey that they hope will take them as far from safety and familiarity as they can get.
Port is a restless soul who finds that the Sahara speaks to his yearning for something vast and mysterious. Both he and Kit are simultaneously looking for and avoiding intimacy. He finds both with an Arab prostitute in a tent. She gets drunk on champagne during a train ride and spends an evening with Tunner. Later husband and wife find an isolated spot on a cliff overlooking a desert valley, but they become distant with each other even in the midst of making love. Sensing the gulf growing between them, the Moresbys elude their traveling companion and continue on their journey in the North African desert. Several encounters with an obnoxious travel writer (Jill Bennett) and her repulsive alcoholic son (Timothy Spall) convince Port and Kit to keep moving further from civilization.
Port finds his magic place at a Foreign Legion fort. Kit picks up the scent of her husband’s journey when she joins a Bedouin caravan traveling across the Sahara. Her magic moment comes when the Bedouin leader (Eric Vu-an) tutors her in the pleasures of the flesh and the rigors of solitude.
Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci’s exquisite adaptation of Paul Bowles’s 1947 novel gracefully conveys its themes of cross-cultural exploration, sex, solitude, and spiritual journey. The startling cinematography of Vittorio Storaro makes the shifting sands and the amazing vistas of the Sahara into a major character in the film. As he did in The Last Emperor, director Bernardo Bertolucci transports us to a visually alluring and exotic alien world where we are brought face-to-face with the compulsions and yearnings which lie behind our alternating love and fear of life. The Sheltering Sky may not appeal to everyone but to those who enjoy quest literature, this outstanding film offers a most unusual trip.