Friday, February 06, 2004

We're like something out of Dead Poets Society except we're women.

Just came home from watching Mona Lisa Smile. What I thought to be a feel-good movie with lots of light moments (like "My Best Friend's Wedding") turned out to be this drama flick that tends to drag in some places.

The setting is 1953-1954 in Wellesley College, Massachusetts. Enter Katherine Ann Watson (Julia Roberts), uneasy and unsure of what she's got herself into when she applied to teach Art History in this supra-conservative part of America. The students are a bunch of snobbish know-it-alls coming from rich families and most of the faculty are so uptight in their view of life you'd think they'd burst. Prominent characters among the students are Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst), an stuffy student paper editor who's in denial of life's imperfections; Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), a grade A+ student who dreams of bucking the system and becoming more than an ordinary housewife; Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the liberal rebel who lives like life's one big party; Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin), the perky buxom girl who had one chance to strike at happiness and she nearly blew it.

Story revolves around Katherine who blows into their conservative little town bringing new ways of appreciating art which they couldn't get from their syllabus. She encourages them to think out of the box like the time she shows them painting slides like the impressionistic beef carcass by Chaim Soutine and asks them if they think it's art. Eventually she also applies more or less the same question to their life. Are they really happy with the decision to finish college only to settle down as ordinary housewives? Wouldn't they rather consider other new meanings for the word "happiness?" Feminists see a rallying point for gender equality, personally, I see a parallel with the Gospels (keep in mind that this is a very loose comparison): In both cases a new teacher comes to town and disrupts the status quo of the authorities by offering them a better way of life ruled by grace in contrast to the rigid law of expectation (legalism) fettered upon them. Both teachers told the story that once upon a time love, desire, and passion drove an artist to create and how over time these same ingredients that fanned the fire of creativity became a cumbersome lifeless set of rules that some people created. Life became a game of painting by numbers. Both teachers were ostracized for their subversive teachings, both were hurt by the betrayal of one of those closest to them, and they both left a group of converts that eventually changed the way of life of a great number of people. There is also a good explanation for the unusual movie title which refers to the sparkling appearance women have to make in front of other people whether they're happy or not.

This isn't one of Julia Roberts' memorable films and I wouldn't really buy a copy of this film for the library. But I wouldn't mind watching it again with someone of the opposite sex for some meaningful discussions of the differences and measure of progress that women today have made in comparison to some fifty years ago e.g. did empowerment grant them the equality they have been fighting for, or, as far as recent headliners go, further debase them?

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