Japanese chemist Chisso has been dumping toxic mercury into Minamata Bay for years. Johnny Depp plays the photographer who informed the world about the scandal in the long-delayed biographical drama.
Depp’s latest film Minamata, which will be screened in Czech cinemas starting this Thursday, had its premiere at the Berlin festival the year before. Subsequently, it reached cinemas in many countries outside the US, somewhere headed straight to DVD or video stores. According to director Andrew Levitas, the MGM studio deliberately tried to bury the title because of Depp’s reputation, damaged by various types of addiction, unreliability and allegations of domestic violence. But there is a more prosaic explanation: Minamata is simply not a good film.
The fifty-nine-year-old Depp, who has always been suited to the roles of eccentric egocentrics who do not consider the needs of those around them, portrayed the American photojournalist William Eugene Smith. For the slightly autobiographical role of a troubled artist whose conscience is awakened, he traditionally allowed himself to be masked beyond recognition. It may take some time for viewers to associate the man with the dapper beret, unkempt gray beard and curly hair with Edward Scissorhands or Captain Jack Sparrow.
The film begins in 1971, in the final phase of Smith’s respectable career. The author of award-winning World War II photographs had by then become a burnt-out wreck fueled by resentment, self-pity and alcohol. His descendants do not communicate with him, he has no friends, he has lost the illusion of the meaning of his work. In addition, he is in debt and penniless. Sometimes he barges into the New York office of Life magazine in a godlike manner to try to pry a job from editor-in-chief Robert Hayes, played with an unusually serious face by Bill Nighy.
In what appears to be Smith’s last opportunity to demonstrate that he has not ceased to be relevant in his old age, he takes on the form of Japanese translator Aileen, played by a Japanese actress and model who goes by the pseudonym Minami. He wants Western society to see how the chemical conglomerate Chisso is gradually killing the residents of a fishing village in Minamata Bay by releasing poisonous substances. Photos printed in a prestigious periodical could help with this.
Exclamations of slogans
A determined woman, who later becomes his wife, actually persuades Smith. To show how much he cares about the case, the photographer barges into Hayes’ office without knocking, interrupts a work meeting, throws a folder of evidence on the desk and shouts, “Mercury poisoning! Here’s your Pulitzer!” The entire film is characterized by the same lack of subtlety, which does not tell about an important topic, but shouts in a cryptic manner so that we do not hear what it wants to tell us.
When Smith and Aileen arrive in a picturesque village on the coast, the blunt American finds himself in the uncomfortable position of an outsider who must submit to the local culture and customs. Later signs of humility towards people whose bodies have been marked by an insidious neurological disease are practically the only manifestation of the protagonist’s character development. Otherwise, the bohemian photographer is mostly a silent witness, not a mover of events with a rich inner life that one would like to get to know more closely. Given Depp’s dedication to both the role and the subject – he also produced the film – it’s a shame.
The film Minamata is shown in Czech cinemas from Thursday. | Video: CinemArt
An early highlight is Smith’s visit to a local hospital, interspersed with his impressive black-and-white photographs of patients. At once we see the essence of the problem and the results of the hero’s work. The problem is that the script has nothing to keep Smith busy other than getting the documentation.
The creators cut a branch under themselves when they placed an American journalist at the center of the story about Minamata, who arrives on the scene almost 20 years after the first signs of poisoning, when the perpetrator is already known thanks to Japanese scientists. Therefore, others set things in motion. His only task is to perpetuate the destruction, protect the photos from the local authorities and deliver them to New York.
Not much for a two-hour story. And so we have to repeatedly watch how the protagonist nervously smokes, drinks from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag, sympathetically observes the suffering of others and sings to himself melancholicly. No hurry. For example, two rather long, footage-stretching scenes show him developing photos in a darkroom. In truth, they don’t exactly excite the action, although composer Ryūichi Sakamoto’s disproportionately grandiose tones try to convince us otherwise.
Japanese characters, such as a boy with deformed limbs, come to the fore mainly so that we, along with Smith, have someone to be moved by. A hardened professional who always stays on top of things becomes a completely different person in these moments. Also Aileen, who initiated the journey, later recedes into the background and her only task is to provide moral support to the hero.
Johnny Depp as William Eugene Smith and Minami as Aileen. | Photo: CinemArt
The very paradox
Instead of a complex character study or a suspenseful investigative thriller à la Spotlight or Dark Waters, a conventional melodrama was created. In the second plan, he vaguely suggests that if it weren’t for the white savior, the Japanese wouldn’t know what to do. Corrupt power is represented in particular by the villainous figure of the chemist’s director, who tries to bribe Smith. For greater effect, this takes place on a bridge between two ominous factory chimneys.
French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme captures the actors either with an impatient hand-held camera, mimicking the style of Smith’s amateur Minamata shots, or in evocative wide-angle shots.
A film written by four screenwriters does not have a coherent style. The contrast of the idyllic countryside and hideous industrial buildings is, however, more telling than all the grand speeches in which the characters half-pathically explain their intentions and philosophies.
Minamata is a drama full of paradoxes. Some of the greatest masters of their fields collaborated on it: Depp, Sakamoto, Delhomme. It highlights the legacy of a key activist photographer, celebrates independent journalism and lightly criticizes capitalism as a system that harms people and the environment. The very current topics.
Yet the film lacks urgency due to its superficiality and clichéd structure. It appears cautious, empty and soulless, like a band of re-aestheticized paintings. The truth that Smith was trying to capture is not to be found in it. The noble intention won over the quality of execution.
Directed by Andrew Levitas
CinemArt, Czech premiere on September 1.