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The War in Iraq or Slavery?

As a filmmaker/provocateur, Von Trier has made a series of "statement" films", preferring to use film to examine social, cultural, political, and philosophical issues (and usually arriving at paradoxical conclusions). Von Trier's films are often messy, didactic, and let's be honest, occasionally dull. Von Trier's latest effort, Manderlay, is no different.

The second in Lars von Trier's planned "USA -- Land of Opportunity" trilogy (and the sequel to 2003's period drama about small-town intolerance and bigotry, Dogville), Manderlay is unfocused, muddled, often dull, and, par for a von Trier film, likely to be controversial for some, offensive to others, but thought-provoking for both. Using the microcosm of a southern plantation where slavery still exists, Manderlay explores the contradictions inherent in so-called "nation-building" through the use of coercive force.

As Manderlay opens, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over for Nicole Kidman), the daughter of a wealthy, brutal gang boss (Willem Dafoe, stepping in for James Caan), has fled Dogville, which she, her father, and her father's goons have left in ruins. Traveling across the southern United States (circa 1933), they stop for a break outside a dilapidated plantation in Alabama. There, an African-American woman pleads with Grace for help. One of the men, Timothy (Isaach De Bankolé), is about to be whipped by an overseer for an undefined transgression. Grace and her father quickly learn that Manderlay is a throwback to the South's pre-Civil War past. At Manderlay, slavery still exists.

As Manderlay's matriarch, Mam (Lauren Bacall), lays dying, Grace unilaterally decides to abolish slavery, depose the white family that owns and runs Manderlay, and create a democratic utopia (albeit through the use of force or the threat of force). Her father, eager to move on, leaves Grace behind with half of his men. With the ambiguous, ambivalent help of Wilhelm (Danny Glover), an elderly slave and patriarch to the slaves, Grace declares the slaves free and, with the help of her father's lawyers, creates a commune, with the ex-slaves given equal shares in Manderlay. The remaining members of the family are compelled to stay on as menial employees, all the while learning political and social lessons from hard work and Grace's dictates.

Concerned that the ex-slaves need additional instruction in democracy, Grace embarks on a series of lectures. Attendance is mandatory, enforced by Grace's well-armed men. Grace imposes a rough, direct democracy on the community. The new community undergoes several hardships, including a fierce dust storm that threatens their livelihood, near starvation, and a betrayal that threatens to undo whatever "progress" Grace has made at Manderlay. In addition, sexual desire (and sexual frustration) adds another level of conflict for Grace and the new community. Not surprisingly, Grace is forced to confront her personal shortcomings, as well as the unintended consequences of her well-meaning political ideals.

Manderlay carries over Dogville's minimalist set design (presumably inspired by Thornton Wilder's Our Town and Bertolt Brecht's ideas about theatre). The sets and props are minimal, with lighting, sound effects, and oversized tags painted on the ground used to distinguish one part of the set from another. Whether this heightened artificiality works as well here as it did in Dogville (where it felt fresh and innovative) is debatable, especially considering the dialogue-heavy content of most scenes. Von Trier attempts to counter the soporific dialogue through the constant reframing and jump cuts that have become part of his toolkit. Manderlay isn't helped by the arch, stilted dialogue, overused voice-over narration (by John Hurt) and an uneven performance from Bryce Dallas Howard (who, to be fair, is too young and inexperienced for such a demanding role).

On the level of subtext, however, viewers will either find Lars von Trier's ideas muddled, challenging, or both, especially if Manderlay is understood as a thinly veiled polemic on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, with Grace a well meaning, if misguided, stand-in for the current administration. Of course, Manderlay is meant as both a reminder of America's deeply divided, deeply racist past and our incomplete recovery from that past (cue photo montage of the history of American racism over the seventy or eighty years), but, in the final plot turn, von Trier suggests that the oppressed often play an active, not just a passive, role in their own oppression in return for safety and security. Unfortunately, it's one among several provocative ideas that von Trier leaves without further explanation or exploration as Grace departs Manderlay for parts unknown, her personal journey still incomplete. The third and final film in the trilogy, Washington is set to begin filming later this year.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars