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December 18, 1985|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

"The Color Purple," an intimate story of suffering, endurance and triumph set primarily in the rural South from 1910-1940, has arrived as a film, its story still distinctive and deeply moving. For the film's existence alone we can be grateful, and it contains at least three memorable performances, but the transition has been at a harrowing cost to the tone and scale and even the underlying theme of Alice Walker's book.

While film makers must stretch their limitations or atrophy, nothing in director/co-producer Steven Spielberg's films even has hinted at an affinity for small-scale, interior, ruminative poetry nor for the complex emotional lives of noncontemporary characters.

This time out, Spielberg has chosen to put an antic disposition on, and with the single exception of casting, his almost every decision has been disastrous. He has prettified or coarsened; he has made comic scenes broadly slapstick and tiptoed over the story's crucial relationship. The result, alas, is the film purpled. (At Mann's Plaza today, it opens at selected theaters on Friday.)

Admittedly, shaping this story into a film is a heroic notion. Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was written as a series of letters, half of them addressed to God, the only person to whom some of these secrets could be trusted. In 1909, their writer, Celie, is a poor, unlettered, unloved, "ugly" Southern black girl. As her outpouring of letters begins, she is given by her father into a loveless, brutalizing marriage to a widower with four children. (Celie's father also repeatedly has raped her, first when she is 14. She has borne him two children who are taken away by him at birth.) At the book's close, almost 40 years later, she is a woman who has at last come to feel her own great worth.

Celie's remarkable transformation comes mainly from her exposure to two women: the outspoken, heroically scaled Sofia, who marries one of Celie's stepsons, and the charismatic blues singer Shug Avery. Proud, volatile, completely unpredictable, Shug, for Sugar, is the ex-mistress (and still occasional girlfriend) of Celie's husband Albert, and the only woman he can be said to love. Over the years, the bond that forms between the parched Celie and Shug is all-encompassing; they are confidantes, friends and lovers of long standing.

Or they should be. Newcomer Menno Meyjes' screenplay gives us an initial sexual encounter of the greatest delicacy between the two women, but he leaves out, to fatal effect, Shug's constant relationship in Celie's life over the next 20 years--the very stuff on which Celie is nourished enough to grow.

Celie must be the film's focus, but swirling around her are the stories of at least a half-dozen others, some here in rural Georgia, others in Africa, where Celie's beloved and long-separated sister Nettie has fled as a teen-ager to work with a missionary group. (This African material, meant to show Nettie's parallel story of female oppression among the Olinka tribesmen and her strengthening through this travail, was the book's weakest note, and it's one of the film's more incomprehensible sections.)

But whatever the faults of Spielberg's artistic choices--exquisitely sunny photography for a story full of emotional darkness; a big thumping background score when simplicity was essential; an added gospel scene that reinforces the uneasy feeling that we have stumbled into "Cabin in the Sky"--he has collected an almost-perfect cast, and what they have done under his direction is undeniable.

Like the book, the film's fondest indulgences are its female characters, the most compelling of which is Whoopi Goldberg's Celie, of the slow, incandescent smile. Her growth comes with the sweet inevitability of stop-motion flower photography, from a clenched bud to a full-blown, heavy-laden flower. It is a most touching debut. As Shug Avery, actress Margaret Avery is electrifying: low-down and raucous when ripping off a number in the juke joint; still and tremulously hypnotic when instructing the adoring Celie in the ways of love. The third of the book's heroic women is Sofia, an impossible woman to cross. She smites whoever is in her path: Harpo (Willard Pugh), her wimpy young husband, or a condescendingly smarmy white woman (Dana Ivey, in the film's most excruciatingly directed performance). And she pays a dreadful price. In Oprah Winfrey's hands, Sofia is indomitable and unforgettable. And special notice should be taken of Desreta Jackson as the young Celie.

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