A Talking Picture is a remarkably cute movie with a shocking uncharacteristic ending about the vulgarity and abruptness of the present. The point is our actions today have all the consequences that matter for our lives; not the ridiculous niceties of history that we are force fed in school. We need to be more aware of and act on the present if we are to make a world that is safe for our children and pleasant for ourselves. Emersing ourselves in the past is cop out for not dealing with the present.
Rosa Marie, a history professor, is on her way to Bombay from Portugal to rendezvous with her husband who is an airline pilot. She chooses to go by boat through the Mediterranean's past empires, then the Red Sea; in a voyage through history- monuments and ruins of the civilizations she teaches about in school. Her seven year daughter is a metaphor for her school kids. She represents the blank slate on which the uncertainties of the past get codified by religion and culture; and then stamped on innocent minds by the decent beautiful teachers who make up the knowledge class for all- but particularly the children of the political class who can pay to go to school.
The voyage quickly confronts the empire, energy, and the profits of conquest with visits to the monument of Vasco de Gama and then the ruins of other dominant empires. The politics of oil intrudes briefly in Marseilles France, as the traffic noise intrudes, and ancient empires are steamrolled by the vulgar progress represented by automobile that symbolizes today's thirst for conquest. An old fisherman explains that strategic oil reserves for war and cars are stored here. Cars are a real plague but we can’t turn back the clock he says, much to our detriment as the movie will conclude.
Feet play a role in this movie. The Fisherman’s little dog keeps his boat and himself tied to solid ground; against the tide of history? And ironically Rosa and her daughter walk through history, reading the ground as it were. We can’t live without oil today Rosa acknowledges. But if you look around a low energy future is in walking distance where ever you are the movie seems to say. Like a more idealic and romantic lifestyle of John the fisherman.
Three actresses of note, Irene Papas, Stefania Sandrelli, and Catherine Deneuve offer comments on history past and the role of men in determining its evolution through violence. John Malkovich plays the dominant American who is trying to understand the past, represented by the cultures of the actresses, and metaphorically able to understand their language, while not overwhelming them with the empire.
While collecting the women and offering relationships as is expected by the dominant empire, he is deferential to them. In a remarkable rhetorical twist everyone speaks their language as if the language of beauty and travel and all the escapes of money that result from empire form a universal language through the culture of commerce.
Yet in the end his small act of buying a doll for the little girl will doom the child and her mother as the fundamentalist present arrives full force into the lazy “contemporary” era.