On one hand, there's the kind of expansive epic popularized by such open-air extravaganzas as Legends of the Fall, Dances With Wolves and Out of Africa. These are the types of films that invariably earn Oscars for their cinematography (as these three did) because they revel in the grandiosity and the splendor of the great outdoors, thereby making it easy for audiences to understand how these surroundings are able to fill the characters with a newfound soulfulness and appreciation for the uncluttered lifestyle. Nowhere In Africa, adapted by writer-director Caroline Link from Stefanie Zweig's autobiographical book, is in many regards this sort of movie, with swooping camerawork and a hypnotic score to allow our minds to marinate in a magnificent foreign terrain.
But the movie works on another level as well. Picking up where The Pianist, The Grey Zone and any number of recent Oscar-winning documentaries have left off, this is also a stirring tale of the Jewish experience during World War II, told from an angle we haven't quite seen before.
Sensing that matters will only get worse, a German-Jewish lawyer named Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze) has the foresight to get his immediate family out of his homeland before it's too late. Most of his relatives choose to stay put, but he's able to convince his wife Jettel (Juliane Kohler) and young daughter Regina (Lea Kurka) to join him on a farm in Kenya, where he has found employment overseeing the place. Although barely getting by, Walter has nevertheless managed to accept his new lot in life, but Jettel, accustomed only to the finest things that money can buy, is horrified by their sudden shift in status. Their inability to see eye-to-eye on most matters puts an incredible strain on their marriage.
For her part, little Regina instantly bonds with the land. She quickly learns Swahili, grows comfortable with nature (whereas in Germany she was even afraid of dogs), and, most significantly, develops a special rapport with the farm's cook Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), a gentle local who always seems to know the right thing to say to everybody, be it in jest or in earnestness.
Regina grows into her teen years (and is played at this age by Karoline Eckertz), yet she never loses her love for the land. And why should she? Scarcely remembering Germany, Kenya is the only place she can truly call home, and her bond with the country and its people is stirring. Walter, on the other hand, finds his affinity for the region slowly dissipating: Always feeling like an outsider, he never viewed it as anything more than a temporary refuge, and he's counting the days until he can return to his homeland.
And spoiled, pampered Jettel? She undergoes the most extraordinary transformation of all, blossoming from poor little rich girl into a hardened woman who finally accepts and even benefits from her unexpected tenure in Kenya. These African-set tales of self-discovery generally center around the women, and Jettel's experiences are as memorable as Meryl Streep's in Out of Africa -- and certainly more engaging than Kim Basinger's in I Dream of Africa.
As for the month's other Charlotte Film Society titles, the documentary Stone Reader () conveys a great love of literature, as filmmaker Mark Moskowitz undergoes a long journey to locate the author of an obscure 1972 novel and meets plenty of interesting characters along the way. (Moskowitz will be at the October 11 screening to discuss his film.) And The Sea (Unscreened) is an Icelandic melodrama centering on the sordid lives of members of a fishing village. (Movies begin this Friday at the Manor and continue the following Friday at Movies at Birkdale. Call 704-414-2355 for details.)