Picks and Pans Review: Shadows and Fog

updated 03/30/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/30/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

Woody Allen, Madonna, Mia Farrow, John Malkovich

Woody Allen's homage to German Expressionist cinema bears an unfortunate resemblance to Steven Soderbergh's Kafka. Beautifully shot in black and white like the Soderbergh movie, the film also centers on a haunted, alienated clerk (Allen). This clerk is trying both to find the man responsible for a series of gruesome killings in an unspecified European town in the early 1920s and to come to terms with the larger, inimical—let's say anti-Semitic, totalitarian—forces referred to as "they."

In the end Shadows and Fog has the dense feel of a grad student's film project. Allen, a bespectacled Milquetoast who "can't make the leap of faith necessary to believe in my own existence," is roused from his bed by vigilantes who want his help in nabbing a strangles though what Allen is supposed to do is never made clear.

During one surrealistic night of wandering, Allen attempts to make sense of himself and of people who jot his name in notebooks, murmur about incidents of well-poisonings, sniff him suspiciously, ask such questions as "Are you for us or against us?" and scorn his stuttered responses, such as, "I don't have enough facts." During his vigil, he meets and takes up with Farrow, a circus sword-swallower whose clown boyfriend, Malkovich, has forsaken her for aerial artist Madonna.

Shadows and Fog, which contains elements from other, better Allen movies—the prostitutes from The Purple Rose of Cairo, the magician from his segment of New York Stories—is not without its trenchant moments, notably a client's disclaimer to a hooker: "I never paid for sex in my life." "You just think you haven't," she retorts. But against the stark monochromatic canvas Allen has fashioned here, such lines seem out of place, like outtakes from another movie. As is often the case with Allen's "serious" work—e.g., Interiors and September—those who dislike the obvious, pretentious Shadows and Fog will figure they don't understand it. Yes, they do. Those who find Shadows and Fog torpid and stuffy may also think it's their fault. No, it isn't. (PG-13)

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