Monday, February 4, 2008

THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (Orion 1985) MGM Home Video

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) is one of director Woody Allen’s most sublime and diverting romantic comedies. The film stars, then wife, Mia Farrow as Cecilia – a drudge married to philandering spouse, Monk (Danny Aiello) and working her fingers to the bone at a greasy spoon to keep body and soul together during the Great Depression. To ease her sadness and disillusionment with life, Cecilia makes a nightly pilgrimage to The Jewel; her local movie house to indulge in the glamorous escapism that only Hollywood can provide.

The latest film playing at The Jewel is The Purple Rose of Cairo – a gaudy romantic comedy starring new matinee idol, Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels) as that film’s fictional character, Tom Baxter; an Egyptian explorer. However, Cecilia’s dead end luck is about to change when Shepherd’s fictional self – Tom – noticing that Cecilia has seen the film five times in a row – suddenly takes on a life of his own. He emerges from the silver screen, much to the shock of theater patrons, and steals away with Cecilia into the night.

The two become inseparable compatriots; Cecilia the dreamer and Tom, the physical manifestation of her dreams. Naturally, studio execs will not stand for this – especially when similar odd events begin to unfold in other theaters across the country. Suddenly, the line between art and reality is blurred. What to do? Well, to save his career Gil journeys to Cecilia’s enclave to confront his fictional self – Tom - and force him back up on the screen.

The plan is to restore order to the narrative structure of the fictional B&W movie, turn off the projector and then burn every existing print of The Purple Rose of Cairo – thereby ending the magic forever. However, the question remains, why would Tom want to go back to a two dimensional existence when his newly discovered three-dimensional one with Cecilia is so much more rewarding?

There is something immediate and genuine about Farrow as a woman so put upon by life that she would rather chose to forget herself in the make believe of a darkened theater rather than explore options on how to make her own life better in the real world. As the audience we see the reality of Cecilia’s life as a colourless and inescapable tragedy and are delighted for her when the fictional – if fabricated – Hollywood stardust intrudes.

The screenplay by Woody Allen revels in poking fun at the dualities in comic relief; the struggle between his movie within a movie and the reality apart from the movies perfectly pitched against Cecilia’s reality. In the end, The Purple Rose of Cairo suggests that the chasm between movie art and reality is too great a span to endure – a stark truth that Cecilia’s character is unable, or perhaps unwilling, to accept.

Woody Allen's career has been so full of such introspective tapestries of life caught on celluloid that perhaps we have all come to expect that his work will simply be great and fulfilling. The Purple Rose of Cairo is both. In fact it is superb. Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels have sublime on screen chemistry; his naive innocence and her willingness to believe in it the idyllic escapism from hardships.

There are other noteworthy performances in the movie. But this is really just a simple story about the transcendent quality of love: pure, wholesome and without reprisals. That Cecilia must eventually surrender her daydream and its monochromatic lover to the screen is perhaps the most bittersweet reality of all. But that doesn't stop Cecilia from returning to The Jewel even after the main feature has been changed. In essence she is our collective representative for that basic human hunger to be contented in our own lives. And even if the magic is fleeting, it leaves an indelible impression on us. We are better for the experience.


MGM’s DVD is disappointing. The anamorphic widescreen image exhibits a desaturated color palette, but one that is represented as muddy and unrefined on this outing. Fine detail is lost, particularly during darker scenes. Film grain is present throughout and, at times, quite distracting. The B&W film portions register with a slight purplish/bluish tint at times. In keeping with Woody Allen’s attention to film minimalism, the audio is Mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. There are no extras.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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