Picks and Pans Review: At Play in the Fields of the Lord
Deep in the Amazon rain forest, a near naked Brazilian Indian takes aim with a bow and arrow at a small plane passing over his village.
It's a poignantly futile gesture, but it makes for a riveting cinematic image, one laden with meaning. And, indeed, At Play in the Fields of the Lord is about the havoc wrought when cultures collide—specifically when Christian missionaries, with gifts of beads and mirrors, set out to convert the wild tribes of the rain forest.
"Who knows what we might learn from the Indians, but we always try to teach them," says a local priest, underlining the theme of this faithful screen adaptation of Peter Matthiessen's 1965 cult novel. Directed by Brazil's Hector (Ironweed) Babenco, the movie has sweep and narrative drive to spare but tells too many stories. At three hours, it is too long and too discursive. Characters disappear for lengthy stretches and, while the Brazilian jungle is spectacular (the entire film was shot on location), this is a movie, guys, not a National Geographic special. Still, At Play is moving and, if nothing else, will spur donations to save the rain forest.
Berenger and Aidan Quinn, both appealing actors who always bring an unexpected facet to a part, have the movie's best roles. Berenger is flinty yet yearning as a dissolute part—Native American who finds himself when, stuck in a small Brazilian village, he joins a rain-forest tribe. Quinn is both amusing and affecting as a missionary who grows to doubt his mission. Others in the impressive cast include Kathy (Misery) Bates, as the missionary's wife, who has fine comic scenes (trying to put bras on the Indians) and some touching ones as she loses her mind; Daryl Hannah, in a surprisingly small role, who is, as usual, lovely to behold and an embarrassment to listen to; and John Lithgow, who does one of his patented priggish turns as another missionary. (R)