Film Review #115: 3 Needles
Director: Thom Fitzgerald
Cast: Olympia Dukakis, Stockard Channing, Lucy Liu, Chloë Sevigny
Near the end of Thom Fitzgerald’s film about the global spread of HIV, the missionary nun Hilde (Olympia Dukakis) wonders why, in this time when the virus threatens us all, we have not joined together to fight it. The dilemma of whether a just, compassionate God could allow such suffering among innocents – ancient as the Old Testament’s Job and routine ever since in the form of persistant genocides and plagues – is not Fitzgerald’s concern here.
Instead, in three 40-minute vignettes, he offers illustrations of what sainthood might look like in an imperfect world. It’s Hilde who observes that saints were “ordinary people once, not divine, who somehow lived beyond their flesh, if only for a moment.” It’s her voice-over narration –from beyond the grave because she is brutally raped, her body discarded, contemptuously half sunk into the mud of a riverbank spot where baptisms had been conducted – that pulls the three stories together, beginning on the South African coast with a tribal circumcision rite that includes the boy Huku, and ending, after detours to China and Montreal, with Huku’s joyful wedding procession across a meadow overlooking the ocean. The ironic titles of the stories – “The Fortitude of the Buddha,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and “The Innocence of Pagans” – suggests that our earthly dogmas and judgments comprise a good share of the “flesh” that saints live beyond.
First, a blood smuggling gang in a small, remote village at the southernmost tip of China. The pregnant Jin Ping (Lucy Liu, in a more subtle performance than most Americans see in her usual films), who carries the virus herself, has rising qualms about the haphazard blood collection procedures and finally walks away. As villagers sicken and die, one farmer loses his assertive and humorous daughter, his closest companion. A stern military officer, who crosses paths with Jin in the opening scene, is sent to restore order and is moved to help the weakened, despairing father with his rice harvest.
Then, an HIV+ Montreal porn actor named Denys (Shawn Ashmore) continues to work, out-witting monthly testing to supplement his mother’s scanty waitress wages. He’s discovered and fired when his invalid father dies. In this event also converge his mother Olive’s accidental discovery of the nature of his job and his HIV status. He comes home to find her watching one of his videos in the parlor as his father’s body still lies in bed. She (Stockard Channing) infects herself with the virus in order to sell her large life insurance policy and support him.
Back at that South African village, where enterprizing children are re-packaging and selling infected syringes back to the clinic, three missionary nuns, Hilde, Mary (Sandra Oh) and the novice Clara (Chloë Sevigny) have a singular mission. With Africans dying at such a rapid rate from the virus, they aim to convert as many as possible so their souls aren’t condemned to Purgatory. Hilde and Clara soon diverge over their mission’s scope – first Clara wants to help the women sell their baskets, soon she’s bringing orphan’s home and eventually she has sex with plantation owner Hallyday (Ian Roberts) in exchange for medical supplies and the arrest of an HIV+ worker who had raped a child. Once released, that worker and a friend retaliate against the nuns.
Born in New Rochelle, Fitzgerald has lived in Nova Scotia since 1986, making films widely respected in Canada but not so much known here until recently – 3 Needles should be a turning point, even though belatedly, on that score. As a writer-director, Fitzgerald has an uncommon capacity to observe detailed daily life in local cultures and to leaven earnestness with wit. He coaxes powerful, often largely non-verbal performances from his actors – Jin’s exhaustion and resolve, the playful bond between Tong Sam and his daughter, Olive’s discovery of her son’s HIV status and then her own, Clara’s decision that sex with Hallyday supports her spiritual mission.
Not yet forty, Fitzgerald has already made a half dozen thoughtful, original feature films with the who’s who of Canada’s best actors, confidently entering foreign cultures, and exploring alternative stories within a single frame, the twin tyrannies of propriety and social acceptance, and what genuine compassion demands of us. In The Hanging Garden (1997) a young gay man returns to Halifax for his sister’s wedding after ten redemptive years in Toronto, with his recollection of the suicide he might’ve committed instead taking tangible form. Beefcake (1999) spoofs 1950s male physique magazines. Bloodmoon, originally make for TV in 2001, uses side-show freaks and were-wolf lore to examine our addiction to normalcy. The Wild Dogs (2002), set in Bucharest’s post-Ceausescu ruins, uses some actors from Bloodmoon and weaves a multi-strand plot about a dog-catcher, a pornographer (Fitzgerald himself), a diplomat’s wife (Alberta Watson) and some maimed gypsy beggars. The Event (also 2002), set in Manhattan and also with Dukakis, addresses HIV and assisted suicide.
Fitzgerald movies are worth getting to know. Besides, as Hilde says, you could be a saint right now, and not even know it.
This review appeared in the 8/2/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing DVDs of films that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.