CINEMA / All in the best possible taste: The film treats the flesh-eating as a necessary evil, something to be got over with

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The Independent Culture
THE OPENING sequence of Alive is like your worst nightmare. You're face to face with a craggy wilderness, nothing but stubbly wreckage shrouded in smoke, staring straight into the jaws of . . . John Malkovich. His wasted face is blown up huge, and he holds a cigarette off-screen, so it looks as if his trousers are on fire. He's playing one of the survivors of the Andes plane-crash in the present day, and drawls about togetherness, solitood and Gard, and - unfortunate wording here - finding 'a higher plane' of spirituality. He tops and tails the movie by telling us what to think.

This false note is the only one in the film. But it can be heard, albeit muted, throughout - the sound of scruple. In the popular imagination the story of the crash survival has always been less about the triumph of the human spirit than the taste of human flesh. The film seeks to change that, and largely succeeds, preferring to be dour rather than disrespectful. The only jokes come from the survivors. 'Be fair to this dilemma,' says one, surveying the white desert. 'This is a beautiful spot.' Director Frank Marshall pulled spiders' legs in Arachnophobia, but here he's creeping and crawling to our sensitivities. He needn't have: the film is powerful enough as it is.

Marshall says he aimed for the most realistic plane-crash ever. Any more real and I'd have needed a priest. Nervous flyers are advised to join the film 15 minutes in. The Old Christians Rugby Club of Montevideo, on a charter to Chile, don't seem a bit jittery, whiling away the trip with touch- rugby and gags on the PA. Their high jinks soon turn to high anxiety. The screen lurches, the passengers' faces becoming a terrified judder. Marshall catches the hypervividness of disaster, packing in detail with frenzied editing: the panicked fumbling with seat- belts, as a wing careers off; the bodies sucked out of a hole in the back; the front half of the plane pounding along the snow like a giant toboggan; the blizzard inside the cabin. The passengers' eyes are shut tight as if they're not sure if they're alive or dead.

Like the survivors, the film treats the flesh-eating as a necessary evil, something to be got over with. The issues are laid out in a brief pre-prandial debate. Civilised taboos are made to seem understandable but squeamish. There's a religious justification to do with the soul's separation from the body, and Christ's self-sacrifice in the Communion. The clincher is the wish of the living to be eaten if they die. The points are made briefly and unhysterically. We're steeped gradually in the sight of the flesh. First, a tiny piece - looking like smoked salmon. Later there are slabs, but the camera never dwells on them. After the first gagging mouthfuls we don't see much eating.

John Patrick Shanley's script (an unlikely successor to the frothy romance of Moonstruck) largely confines the action to the plane, creating a deft chamber piece. Vincent Spano's blazered team-captain does what captains do, bossing, geeing, and irritating. The true leader emerges in Ethan Hawke's Nando, whose indomitable certainty pulls the group through. The most interesting character is Roberto Canessa (Josh Hamilton); brainy, but a waverer, a man whose intelligence gets things done but leaves him open to hopelessness.

Most viewers will come to the film for two hyped scenes - the crash and the nosh - but it's the small details of improvised survival that you take away, like the passenger walking on snow-shoes made out of seating sponge. Marshall paces the film well: it can be gruelling, perhaps in sympathy with the ordeal, but flurries of action hook us back. Sometimes the screenplay seems too schematic - the woman telling her partner she wants another child shows a little too neatly how a brush with death can reaffirm faith in life. But mainly it has the ring of truth, while working as drama. The discretion can be frustrating, but the valour is inspiring.

Mediterraneo is a placid account of the occupation of a Greek island by a group of Italian soldiers during the Second World War. The film fondly sketches its band of military misfits as they bask in their demi-paradise, cut off from the fighting world. There's the bearded sergeant (Diego Abatantuono), a glutton for life, disappointed at every sunset. His arty lieutenant (Claudio Bigagli), who takes to painting frescoes in the local church. The virgin Farina (Giuseppe Cederna), who falls for a whore (Vanna Barba) with a heart of gold and a rueful fatalism. Each man has a lovable quirk, or, in one case, a donkey. Guarding against an invasion that'll never happen, this laid-back crew are a sort of Dudes' Army.

The film won last year's Oscar for best foreign film, and if there'd been one for limp-wristed escapism it would have got that too. It flaunts its flightiness, opening with a quote about escape being 'the only way to stay alive and continue dreaming' and closing on a dedication to 'those who are running away'. You'd think the director was in his late teens, but Gabriele Salvatores is 42. The film was a rallying point for Italian Gulf war dissidents, but its pacifism seems more knee-jerk than heartfelt. A coda shows the central trio returned to their land of lost content, years after the war, let down by Italy's unfulfilled promise. It's a good subject, needing a far tougher treatment. Instead we get the washed-out charm that is the staple of the Italian cinema these days.

It's still preferable to the British habit of draping every drama in a costume. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is another musty old Dickens adaptation. Dickens died before finishing the novel and you may feel the same about the film. It starts promisingly, with Robert Powell's chiselled face and eternally curly hair giving the right impression of blasted youth to the choirmaster and secret opium- fiend, John Jasper. Dickens says Jasper is six-and-20, and Powell is pushing 50, but Dickens added 'he looks older than he is'. (Claude Rains was exactly Powell's age playing the part in 1935.) The British cinema's sideburns are the envy of the world, and here we're confronted with some ferocious facial hair: Jasper's curling side-whiskers, Freddie Jones as Sapsea with a deep Shavian growth, Andrew Sachs's grave- digger all but buried in beard. If only the performances had as much bristle. Dickensian grotesques like the hypocrite preacher Honeythunder (Marc Sinden) dampen scenes they should steal with their preposterousness.

The film is at its best when Jasper and his beloved Edwin (Jonathan Phillips) are sparring with the edgy, envious Neville Landless (the successfully saturnine Rupert Rainsford). Here there's an undercurrent of unpleasantness, of Jasper's latent hatred of humanity in general, and women in particular. Director and adaptor Timothy Forder diligently opens up the melodrama the book hatched with Edwin's disappearance and works it through to its grisly end. But he might have done better sticking with Jasper, who, an earlier adaptor suggested, could have made Dr Jekyll superfluous if Dickens had completed Drood. The early part of Forder's film, with the cathedral town of Rochester playing itself as picturesque-sinister, and Powell bemoaning the cramped monotony of his existence, hints at horrors that aren't delivered.

'Alive' (15): Empire Leicester Sq (497 9999) & gen. release. 'Mediterraneo' (15): Curzon Mayfair (465 8865), Screen on Green (226 3520). 'Edwin Drood' (12): MGM Shaftesbury Ave (836 8861). All nos 071.

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