Broken English

1996, NC-17, 90 min. Directed by Gregor Nicholas. Starring Aleksandra Vujcic, Rade Serbedzija, Julian Arahanga.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., May 23, 1997

With all due respect to John Lennon and Benetton, the human race seems still woefully unprepared to “imagine there's no countries" or abandon our ethnic and cultural differences for a glorious, rainbow-hued brotherhood of man. Truer to the reality we know is Broken English's setting of modern New Zealand, where waves of immigration have created tense, polyglot urban enclaves that more closely resemble pressure cookers than melting pots. In this film, as with Mississippi Masala, interracial romance is the dramatic device for exploring tensions among competing groups of cultural outsiders. The story by Kiwi director-writer Nicholas (Avondale Dogs) centers on young lovers Nina and Eddie -- he's a native Maori, she's the daughter of Croatian émigrés -- who defy cultural taboos and her father's disapproval to pursue an intense, explosively erotic affair. Nina, played by sultry newcomer Vujcic, is a ravishing, headstrong sex bomb with a yen for forbidden thrills. These traits keep control-freak daddy Ivan in a constant state of anxiety and send him completely over the top when she hooks up with studly Eddie (Arahanga), a cook at the restaurant where she works. Ivan, every editorial cartoonist's image of the volatile, hate-consumed Balkan badass, loves his daughter after a fashion, but forces Nina into a stark choice between boyfriend or family. Portrayed with bloodcurdling authority by Serbedzija (the villain from The Saint), he embodies the mindless vindictiveness and cultural chauvinism that make the utopian dream of world peace such a dicey proposition. Admittedly, Broken English's story is unoriginal in its basic outlines. Those who question the need for another recasting of Romeo and Juliet may find the centerpiece love story thin and uninvolving, despite some rip-snorting NC-17 sex scenes. But Nicholas' film still commands respect with its potent blend of uncompromised realism (the look and feel are sometimes reminiscent of Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors and not only because Julian Arahanga plays that film's oldest son) and bold, mythically charged romanticism. And how often do we find a mainstream movie that frankly confronts the central human dilemma of knowing when faith in love becomes a self-destructive lie and forgiveness a form of masochism? Broken English does so in a way that powerfully affirms the worth of goodness and love even as it concedes the uncertainty of their final triumph.

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