TELLURIDE, Colo.--At last here is real humor, welling up from the heart and from human nature, instead of the crude physical comedy of Hollywood's summer specials. In Ismail Merchant's "The Mystic Masseur" and Nicole Holofcener's "Lovely and Amazing," the Telluride Film Festival warmed the souls of its audiences and sent them blinking and smiling back into the mountain sunshine.
The two films are seemingly completely different. "The Mystic Masseur," based on the novel by V.S. Naipaul, tells the story of a poor Indian boy in Trinidad, mesmerized by books, who lifts himself step by step out of poverty, as he grows into a pundit and a politician but does not necessarily become happier along the way.
"Lovely and Amazing" tells of a few weeks in the lives of a mother and her three daughters--two grown up and white, one a precocious 8-year-old adopted African-American. What the films have in common is a deep sympathy for the hopes and frailties of their characters, and a close observation of how people behave in love, marriage and their careers.
There are two kinds of laughter, the laughter of surprise and the laughter of recognition. The summer teenage specials get laughs by shocking us with surprises that are usually of a sexual or excretory nature. Movies like these two Telluride treasures are funny in a deeper and more rewarding way, because we recognize in the characters our own weaknesses and evasions, our own ambitions and dreams.
"The Mystic Masseur" is told by a narrator who is not far removed from Naipaul himself--a Trinidadian of Indian ancestry, now a student at Oxford, who welcomes a visiting island dignitary who turns out to be Ganesh, the very same writer and holy man who inspired him as a youth. Flashbacks tell the story of the visitor, who wanted to be an author, tried to support himself as a masseur, and found success only by putting on a turban and repackaging himself as a Hindu adviser and healer.
Aasif Mandvi is Ganesh, the masseur, Ayesha Dharker (of "The Terrorist") is his long-suffering, plucky wife, and Om Puri is richly comic as the father-in-law who craftily arranges the marriage and then tries to get out of paying for the wedding. The film has an unfailing touch for the Trinidad cultural flavor, and quietly makes a point about the world of the characters by showing almost only Indians until Ganesh becomes a politician and find himself afloat in Port of Spain with African-Caribbeans and British colonial officials.
The film has the instinct for period and setting of all the Merchant-Ivory productions, but seems to have absorbed them into its very pores; it is rare to see a rags-to-riches story in which we are so intimately involved with the characters, so sympathetic to them, and led so easily to understand that riches may not always be a good trade for the happiness of youthful ambition.
"Lovely and Amazing" almost defies description. It is about relationships gently and comically observed, involving characters who are smart, sane and artists of daily conversation. Often we laugh simply because of the way they express themselves, or because they are so clearly speaking as ordinary people, not plot-driven robots. Brenda Blethyn plays the mother, who has adopted a young, bright, observant, sassy African-American girl (Raven Goodwin). Her two grown daughters are an actress (Emily Mortimer) and an unhappily-married "artist" (Catherine Keener) who makes miniature chairs out of twigs.
The film includes adulteries, affairs and a health crisis, but the screenplay, by director Nicole Holofcener, takes them for granted. It doesn't punch up the obvious confrontations and crises, but looks between the pages for the moments in which the characters are most human. Few of the expected denouements take place, and what replaces them are moments of sudden insight and empathy for the characters. In a film of so much richness, it is, well, lovely and amazing how its special angle on race in our society makes clear so much that is unsaid.
There are more movies still to come. At first when you arrive in Telluride, you can hardly breath because the air is so thin at this altitude. After seeing movies like these, you realize that you are breathing deeply again after the oxygen deprivation of Hollywood factory product.