Ibelieve it was the spring of 2007 when I first saw “The English Patient at the local film multiplex beside my school. The film was released in Egypt with a considerable buzz following its nine Academy Awards the same year.
Egyptian publications of all types and sizes, wrote extensively about it, describing the cinematic adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s award winning novel as one of the greatest love stories of all time.
Back then, the Oscar brand wasn’t efficiently used in marketing such serious, adult films. I honestly wasn’t too keen on watching the film. I was still hooked on Hollywood blockbusters and big action flicks like “Die Hard and “Mission: Impossible.
“The English Patient in particular was greeted with disdain by Egyptian filmgoers who deemed it too dull, grim and long. In Egypt it was a box-office flop upon release, a fact proven by the empty theater to which my friends dragged me the day I watched it.
From the first scene, where a hand is seen drawing unidentifiable objects projected against a soothing, sad Eastern-sounding song, I was transfixed in my seat.
At that time I was obsessed with stories of unfulfilled love and infidelity for reasons I still fail to grasp: “Anna Karenina and “The Painted Veil were my favorite novels then. But it wasn’t just the non-linear storyline of the film, or Gabriel Yared’s haunting score or Ralph Fiennes’ stoic face and cool demeanor that thoroughly enthralled and captivated me; it was, above all, Anthony Minghella’s mesmerizing direction.
Every single frame of the film was a pure work of art. “The English Patient was, simply put, a cinematic poem unlike anything I’d seen before.
Along with Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life, “The English Patient remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Throughout the years, I’ve seen numerous films far superior to “Patient, which renders my affection for the film, eleven years later, quite inexplicable. It’s this pure magic that transcends rationality and critical thinking that makes Minghella the great director he was, unfortunately, rarely recognized to be.
The shock of losing Minghella last Tuesday at age 54 was overshadowed by the lack of proper tributes from film publications, reluctant to analyze his works or give the Oscar winning director his due.
The English writer/director was unfairly regarded by plenty of critics as the filmmaker of grand, pompous films that lacked the radical, daring touch of film auteurs, a common perception that undermines his eclectic, ambitious and remarkable body of work
The six films Minghella directed in his short film career are all connected by a number of themes and ideas realized with a visual flare that, despite the deceptive grandiosity of production, is intimate and personal.
In his first film, the made-for-television “Truly Madly Deeply, Minghella wrote a seemingly simple, and traditional, ghost story that turned into a gentle meditation on grief, death, memories and love.
Juliet Stevenson played a young widow unable to accept or overcome the death of her husband. The sudden return of his ghost (Alan Rickman) initially consoles her before she begins to drown in her husband’s little annoying habits again.
Stevenson’s character is entrapped by the memory of her husband, not by the actual ordinary reality of their life together. All Minghella’s characters are somehow similar.
Count Almásy from “Patient, Inman and Ada from “Cold Mountain or Will from his underrated and misunderstood “Breaking and Entering, are all ensnared by their past lives and loves. Their memories are their primary source of hope. Every action his characters carry out is essentially a doomed endeavor to revive these memories or replicate them via a different reality.
That’s why love, in Minghella’s world, can’t ultimately be attained. The kind of heightened, passionate and supreme love of “Truly, “Patient and “Mountain only exist in film. One of Minghella’s greatest strengths was the space he created for his audiences and his characters to experience this idealistic type of love that has no place in real life.
His characters are all virtually detached from a reality they’re unwillingly forced to face. Tom Ripley from “The Talented Mr Ripley is the best example. Matt Damon plays a lavatory attendant, whose greatest talents are “telling lies, forging signatures and impersonating almost anybody. He takes on the life of a spoilt, wealthy young man following a series of murders and fuelled by a compulsion to lie.
Ripley is a man of no identity. He can’t trust anyone and he eventually loses the one person he succeeds in connecting with. Salvation for Minghella’s characters is linked with a distant figure they fail to seize.
Yet, and despite the distressingly emotional impact his audience can’t dodge, he always ends his films with a subtle, heartwarming note of hope.
“Madly ends with Stevenson’s character finding a different love; Hana (Juliette Binoche) finds comfort in the eyes of young girl in “Patient ; the memory of Inman lives in his daughter in “Mountain ; and Will manages to confront his demons and his partner.
His themes and characters aside, Minghella was a skillful filmmaker who infused his stories with unforgettable images and breathtaking sensuality. It’s difficult for the most ardent naysayer not to be immersed in Minghella’s meticulously chosen backdrops (the Tunisian desert of “Patient, or “Ripley’s Venice), lyrical cinematography, or the even streaks of graphic violence that jolts the audience back to reality.
The epic David Lean-esque stories Minghella was famous for are becoming the “Scarlet Letter of modern cinema. The beauty and sweeping drama of Minghella’s films are, on the surface, no different from cinema’s greatest classics. But Minghella redefined epic films with non-traditional narratives, a personal worldview and an artistic eye for images.
Minghella’s last movie “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the first film shot in Botswana, will be broadcasted this Sunday on British TV. I don’t presume the film will convert any of Minghella’s disbelievers. Who knows though, maybe years from now, Minghella’s accomplishments might finally receive the recognition he truly deserves in film history books.