Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Sunday Reading Corner with Lee Liberman-- A HEAVENLY VINTAGE (2009) and its source novel, The Vintner's Luck (1998): Less is More

{Editor's note: Lee Liberman, who wrote today' s post, first communicated with TrustMovies on the subject of the film A Heavenly Vintage (TM's original review of that film can be found here), so today marks an anniversary of sorts, as Lee has at last gotten around to covering from her perspective, as she's been promising, this unusual and very fine film. She also compares it with the novel on which it is based, which I had not read. Enjoy!}

Elizabeth Knox, author of "The Vintner's Luck", the novel on which A HEAVENLY VINTAGE was based, confesses to having cried in bed for days, so disappointed was she by the film treatment of her work by fellow New Zealander, director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country), about the angel Xas ("sass") and the French winemaker Sobran.

Film reviewers were all over the map -- one calling it 'amazing silliness', another praising its 'lyrical beauty and intelligence'. It never made it into US theaters -- that despite acclaim at festivals and Caro's fine reputation. (Whale Rider's 13-year-old star and best actress Academy Award nominee, Keisha Castle-Hughes, now years later, plays Sobran's wife, Celeste.) Happily "A Heavenly Vintage" is available on DVD and Netflix streaming -- memorable for its beauty and its modern parable.

I was very surprised to find the film mired in controversy on line, leading to my reading the novel to see what Caro omitted that made Knox loyalists so angry. It is beautifully, lyrically penned with strands of Plato's theory of forms threaded throughout; it includes a murder plot and picaresque adventures that the angel Xas has on his own. For all its absorbing parts and bits of wisdom, however, it doesn't hold together as Caro's work does -- admitting to my own preference for a taut storytelling arc in which characters grow or there's purpose to it.

Caro abducted the setting and main characters from Knox's novel but she abandoned subplots and narrowed her script to a story that both plucks at the heart and strikes a blow against the sort of religious superstition that thwarts innovation and progress (as timely a topic now as in church-dominated rural France of the 1800's). It makes me think of Shakespeare's theft of plots from mythology and history and making epic work of them. While not Shakespeare, Caro did this, plucking a jewel from Knox's tapestry.

The deploy of an angel to make a methodical case against superstition makes a paradoxical device to seduce both Sobran and the viewer into a message of enlightened and benign self-interest. Yet the story, characters, and lovely score by Antonio Pinto are so spun with gold that the viewer is almost unaware of the enlightenment era subtext as Sobran's life of (many) loves and much toil plays out.

Perhaps Knox grieved the absence of her Platonic theory, but gay fans of her novel were expressly angered by the absence of the explicitly same-sex relationship between Sobran and Xas -- as though homosexuality itself were being demeaned. Caro went the route of 'less is more'; in fact the film viewer experiences their merging more deeply than Knox's reader does paging through love scenes in the novel.

Caro narrows the film's focus to Sobran's internal war between his superstitious peasant soul and his ambitious modern mind. His wife Celeste anchors his emotional and family life. His employer, business partner, and lover, the young atheist Baroness Aurora engages both emotional and intellectual needs (the lovely Vera Farmiga, below, right). In Xas, however, is the beloved, frustrating councilor who forces Sobran to shed his notions of heaven's blessing and protection.

Appearing in the vineyard one June night and yearly thereafter for much of Sobran's life, is the winged creature portrayed by Frenchman Gaspard Ulliel (below, left), full of heart, light, and the smell of snow. Sobran is played and ages convincingly from youth through death by fine Belgian/French actor, Jérémie Renier (below, right, and above, left). Sobran tells Celeste, "God's luck is on my side." -- he feels protected, enfolded by the angel's favor. When he attempts to kiss Xas, the angel turns away, unwilling to allow Sobran to conflate their friendship with "success" or "God's blessing".

"You are supposed to protect me," Sobran argues. "If you don't protect me, why are you here?" Xas answers simply, "because I want to be." "It is in your hands... the wine you make, the life you choose." It's a tough understanding for Sobran, to which he listens but does not hear: their love, in fact God's love, is not going to get great vintage; Sobran has to get it on his own.

Xas, himself a gardener, encourages Sobran to innovate in the vineyard. "You need to think of the taste you want and then balance the soil to achieve it." "Poor soil means mineral, stone, taste, flavor; but the plant will have to fight to get what it needs. And it is that effort and yours that will show in the character of the wine."

In time, Xas reveals that he is a "fallen angel", having fallen by choice -- a well-lived life is not either heaven's bliss or hell's pain but both together. The revelation pushes Sobran into a grim depression -- this fallen angel may curse his luck; Celeste runs for the priest. An ensuing vintage fails catastrophically due to blight. It takes Sobran's arduous fight back from total loss to embrace the angel's wisdom and to make his peace. It's a shame that peeved Knox fans short-changed the film version of the unity between angel and man and its lovely message. If you are with Caro, you will re-experience your own ambition, heartbreak, and triumph. Also, along the way, you'll gain love for the art and respect for the science of winemaking.

A Heavenly Vintage can be streamed now, exclusively via Netflix, though it is also available, for sale and rental, on DVD.

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