PASCALI'S ISLAND (UK, 1988) *** 1/2
Polyglot Pascali (Ben Kingsley) acts like a Turk, but bears a Greek name and is a racial mix of East and West. He subsists on language lessons, tourists, and from being a not-so-secret spy for Constantinople to which he has been sending reports for 20 years. Yet none has ever been acknowledged, though his pay keeps coming, without any raises. It's as though Pascali is a tiny forgotten cog in a machinery that runs automatically in Kafka-like fashion. Obsessed with the emptiness of being and nothingness, and the silence of God (read, the Sultan), Pascali bombards his master with desperate, fawning, unanswered letters . (These make up the entire source novel of the film.)
Bowles, a handsome Englishman (Charles Dance) disembarks. Pascali offers his services as a translator in a wonderfully ingratiating manner, like an anguished version of that other quintessential Levantine, Peter Ustinov in TOPKAPI. Bowles passes for an archaeologist but Pascali spots him right away as a suave con man. He assists him in a small deal which turns out to be a complicated scam at the expense of the venal local governor, the Pasha. The island is a nest of pre-War I intrigue where nobody is quite what he seems to be. Americans run guns to the Greek resistance (" Combining idealism with commerce, that's the American way") while the Germans sell arms to the Turks and covet a mineral-rich stretch of red earth. Bowles becomes the lover of long-time resident Lydia ( Helen Mirren), an Austrian aristocrat. He then finds a treasure, an antique bronze statue of a Greek boy ...
At the core is Pascali's acute consciousness of being a loser with no justification for his life. Other marginal beings surface in the transitional times when a civilization wanes and radical changes are in the air, but they come to terms with themselves, which self-torturing Pascali does not and cannot. Awake or in nightmares, he is haunted by failure and fears like the mountain of his useless reports or the enmity of the Greeks (he has visions of a menacing Christ and of his own crucifixion . ) A loner, jolly on the surface, secretive deep down, Pascali is ambiguous, down to his sexuality. He has an old, silent crush on Lydia and a new one on Bowles, subtly composed of physical attraction and admiration for the adventurer's composure. Now twin-headed jealousy joins Pascali's other frustrations, and kind of Greek tragedy closes the vicious circle....
James Dearden is the British writer-director who had expanded his marvelous 45- minute TV drama, DIVERSION, into the script of the fatally overheated FATAL ATTRACTION . With his collaborators, he has melded skilfully many elements in PASCALI'S ISLAND, principally the portrait of a failed man, a sting operation and the evocation of a nation's decline.
The acting is superior. Kingsley, as intense as ever, uses his voice, his controlled body Turkish, and his liquid, staring eyes to convey masterfully his loneliness and malaise with the world within and without him. Dance is very cool and British, Mirren elegantly decadent and sensuous. The couple give an impression of flamboyance yet their acting is sober and quiet. The supporting cast, save for the effete, rouged Pasha and his rapacious adviser, is kept in the background so that the picture will not get cluttered. They too also underplay, but at the same time give the impression of suppressed violence that might explode any minute. It does, and it still is more the violence of acts than that of individuals.
The plot itself is interesting, with graphic and humorous touches --but it becomes a weakness as its takes more involuted turns of scams within scams and escalates into the improbable. Some of this can be ignored as, more than the twists, it is the acting out of confrontations, games of chess and one-upmanship, that engages our interest.
Inextricably woven into characters and actions is the recreation of another time, another place, done with fascinating near-authenticity, well-dosed and avoiding colorfulness for its own sake .
Even so, some errors and inconsistencies creep in : a wrong Turkish flag, some details of dress, or Kingsley shifting to a stronger accent, as if dubbed by someone else, when we hear his letters to the Sultan. And it is ludicrous for Mirren, who has lived for years among Moslems, to say: "What do they call them? Mi-na-rets?"
But on the whole, it is not hard to be charitable about some isolated mistakes and the illogicality of the last part in a movie which treats an original subject with unpedantic literacy. The production values are excellent in this visually beautiful work. The sets (filmed on Rhodes and Simi) are by Andrew Moll(DANCE WITH STRANGER) . The photography is by Roger Deakins (SID AND NANCY; DANCE WITH STRANGER; STORMY MONDAY ) who holds his ability to be brilliant in check. Loek Dikker's framing music is hauntingly Oriental-Balkanic.