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REWIND : Exploring Amazon From the Den

August 26, 1993|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who frequently contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

The Amazon comes to Orange County this week.

The "Amazon's Edge" exhibit opens at the Santa Ana Zoo, while "Colors of the Dawn/Invisible People: Arts of the Amazon" opens at Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, also in Santa Ana.

Complementing both events are several first-rate videos that can add a little Amazoniana to your home. Three films--"At Play in the Fields of the Lord," "The Mission" and, perhaps best of all, "The Emerald Forest"--deal specifically, sensitively and relatively realistically with the plight of the forest people and the exploitation of Amazon tribes by white settlers, loggers, slave traders and miners.

"The Emerald Forest" (1985) is based on a true story about a white child stolen from the edge of a Brazilian forest by a tribe referred to as "the invisible people" and found, fully assimilated into the Stone Age tribe, by his father 10 years later. John Boorman has produced and directed a thoroughly entertaining and visually stunning film; his son, Charley, plays the boy whose home becomes the forest.

The movie takes us into the midst of the tribe to the point that it relies heavily on subtitles, and the dialogue provides valuable insights and sociological distinctions. White men are called "the termite people" because "they chew down all the grandfather trees." Unlike European monarchs, tribe leaders hardly rule absolutely--"If I tell a man to do what he does not want to do," says the boy's adopted father, "I am no longer chief."

"The Mission," which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986, is also based on a true story and is also cinematographically sumptuous.

Set in 1750, the film opens with a priest affixed to a crucifix plummeting, the cross inverted, over a waterfall to his death; it closes with Jeremy Irons as a Jesuit priest who, together with the women and children of a tribe "brought to the everlasting mercy of God and the short-lived mercy of man," is slaughtered by Portuguese settlers.

These two scenes linger long after the film ends, as does the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. Robert De Niro is powerful as a mercenary who turns penitent after jealously murdering his brother, played by Aidan Quinn. The characters played by Irons and De Niro choose different methods to protect the natives. Irons depends on God's lovel; De Niro is willing to use guns; both fail.

In "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," Quinn, who must have had an option on Amazon movies despite a dishrag personality in both roles, turns up again as an evangelist with a heart opposite Tom Berenger as a Native North American turned Native South American with Messianic overtones. Despite their best intentions, both characters ultimately hurt more than help.

The tribe depicted is actually a composite of many Amazonian tribes, but the ethnographic shorthand is effective.

The film runs more than three hours on two cassettes. John Lithgow is a doctrine-spouting missionary who can't see the spiritual rain forest for the fundamentalist trees; Tom Waits is his profligate foil. In important spousal roles, Kathy Bates is almost as repulsive as she was in "Misery," and Daryl Hannah is, well, Daryl Hannah.

All three films share at least one message, summed up in an understatement by the papal representative whose voice-overs frame "The Mission": "I could not help wondering whether these Indians would not have preferred that the sea and wind had not brought any of us to them."

Not focusing primarily on the Amazonian people, but absolute must-sees for Amazon fans, are two films by Werner Herzog, both with Klaus Kinski--"Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (West Germany, 1972), about a 16th-Century conquistador intent on finding the city of El Dorado, and "Fitzcarraldo" (West Germany, 1982), about a turn-of-the-century Irishman intent on building an opera house on the Amazon River. Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams" (1982), about the making of "Fitzcarraldo," again deals with obsession, in this case, Herzog's own.

The less-successful "Medicine Man" (1992, not to be confused with the 1930 film with Jack Benny) offers a characteristically passionate performance by Sean Connery as a scientist working in the rain forest to repeat the results of a fluke experiment that produced a cure for cancer. His search, and the movie, are unfortunately bogged down by the arrival of a hotshot researcher played by Lorraine Bracco with fingernails-on-the-chalkboard grate.

Rounding out the roundup, "Green Hell" (1940), about a jungle expedition attacked by savages, boasts a fine cast including Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Vincent Price and Alan Hale. Those more adventurous than this writer might also try "Amazon" (1992), with Rae Dawn Chong as a teacher who helps a miner understand that the land should not be plundered.

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