“The Flower That Drank the Moon” is a film achieved with such stunning power that if the studio took out a double-truck newspaper ad for the film, the banner headline across the top would simply have to say “A Powerfully Stunning Achievement.” Such is the stunningly achieved power of the experience of the triumph of the human spirit that is “The Flower That Drank the Moon,” a sweeping story of the glory of love, tolerance and, above all, redemption.
Director Lasse Hallström masterfully limns the simple tale of Shlomo Shlomoskowitz (Stellan Skarsgård), a poor but happy fishmonger-mandolinist living quietly and quaintly in Cornadelli, a tiny seaside village on the South Side of Greece. The time is late summer, 1947, post-World War II and pre-Cold War I. Wise old Shlomo passes his days soaking up sun and hauling up fish. If there is any sort of dark secret in Shlomo’s past, he certainly is not aware of it (not yet, anyway). For Cornadelli is a land of fragrant flowers and plucked mandolins…or is it? Discovering the answer for yourself will be the most ennobling, enlightening and invigorating time you’ll have at the movies all millennium.
The story takes a moderate but not unpleasantly shocking turn when, one sweltering late-July or early-August day, Shlomo’s world of peace and plenty, his idyllic life of fishing and plucking, soon comes crashing down around his knobby, scabby knees. This is the day that Shlomo’s long-lost daughter – the “Flower” of the film’s title, the daughter he never knew he had or perhaps just can’t quite place – comes home to Shlomo. Life will never be the same in Cornadelli, or anywhere else in the greater Grecian area of the heart.
The girl is half-Jewish and half-Japanese. Her name? Sosumi. Played with spellbinding, heartrending, mindbending delicacy by a brilliantly tanned Gwyneth Paltrow, Sosumi is a lovely but timorous creature trapped between two worlds. Cast aside by her foster parents Okidoki and Hunkidori – who have dark secrets of their own to attend to, we will learn after the second intermission – Sosumi has traveled many miles in a self-piloted rickshaw to seek solace at her father’s knee. But the knees are weak, and the scabs have yet to heal. Shlomo cannot find a way to let his daughter into his aching, but not yet breaking, heart.
Then there is the none-too-small matter of Theo Potatotomatopoulos (Judi Dench, in a career-redefining gender-blender of a role), the wizened but still bearish owner of the local pork sushi emporium. While Shlomo cannot countenance Sosumi’s consumption of any pork-based exotic seafood dish – he prefers a nice gefilte fish – the real issue he must overcome is his raven-haired but bull-headed daughter’s frenzied love for the demurely androgynous Theo (whom Shlomo, in a heartbreaking but ultimately heartwarming scene, dismissively dismisses as “Thea”). Shlomo feels in his deepest, warmest places that Sosumi’s feelings toward Theo must be the pseudo-lesbianic passions of a confused country girl. But Sosumi’s love is as bright as the sun and moon put together and turned up really high. Shlomo must learn that love – even the love between a young Japanese Jewess and an elderly Greek hermaphrodite – runs deep, deeper than Atlantis, and that love can silence the most violently plucked mandolin strings of the heart.
Of all the soul-enriching riches bestowed upon us by “The Flower That Drank the Moon,” mention must also be made of Tom Wilkinson’s smashingly yet compellingly understated performance as Zeus, a kindly doctor, retired poet and also the hot-tempered mayor of Cornadelli. No fool he, Zeus is a man who suffers no fool gladly, least of all his long-suffering but foolish wives Penny (Penélope Cruz), Julie (Juliette Binoche) and Julie (Julianne Moore). When Penny is maimed in a tragic skiff pileup, and both Julies suddenly take pity upon poor Shlomo in all his unbathed vulnerability, well…Hallström makes us believe that true love has never been truer and the ægean Sea has never been bluer.
Far be it from this critic to reveal the dark secrets that may or may not come into play, but suffice it to say that warplanes, magic recipes, several abortions and a pair of itinerant, underemployed British soldier-playwrights (portrayed with incisive intensity by a bearded Ralph Fiennes and a clean-shaven Joseph Fiennes) may or may not be involved. Also potentially involved (or not) is the long-lost daughter Sosumi never knew she had, who arrives very, very late – just in the nick of time, actually – in the summer that would change everyone’s lives for the better. The cute little girl from “Chocolat” and also that French film that won an award at Cannes about five years ago is powerfully effective in this small but pivotal role. With inimitable intimacy, she shines like a beacon of hope in a place that otherwise doesn’t yet have much in the way of electricity…yet.
The arguably overplotted but undeniably understandable plot of “The Flower That Drank the Moon” comes full circle one early-autumn eve, during a parade celebrating the town’s 2,283rd anniversary. The big event is photographed with ravishing attention to picturesque scenery by a phalanx of veteran cinematographers including but not limited to John Seale, John Toll, John Bailey, John Schwartzman, Janusz Kaminski, Vilmos Zsigmond, Miroslav Ondrícek and Slavomir Idziak. And no expense was spared on the climactic sultry, sweaty, only-in-Greece quadruple-wedding extravaganza. (In other words, no plate was spared either. These unruly Grecians have enough life in them to get old Anthony Quinn up and jitterbugging again!)
At the end of the day, though, when all is said and done and it’s all over but the shouting, “The Flower That Drank the Moon,” based on the critically beloved blockbuster novel by F. Kazuo Kureishi Proulx, is an overwhelmingly historic achievement for one reason alone. As any industry wag, any showbiz maven, any Tinseltown tattler could tell you, this spirit-soaring pulse-racer of a production is the first epic, epoch-defining, much-ballyhooed and bandied-about co-production between Miramax and DreamWorks. Yes, it’s the maiden voyage of their new art-house powerhouse MiraWorx SWKWG. All the bad blood of Oscar campaigns past has been washed away by the pure love of telling a good story, and it’s a beautiful, bountiful behemoth to behold. (Another first of epically historic proportions is the cooperative co-funding of this co-venture by corporate conglomerate Vivendisney, Hollywood’s hugest and hottest new power couple.)
But it’s not about money. It’s about heart. “The Flower That Drank the Moon” is sure to be a veritable statuette magnet next March, and that ultimately is what ensures that this Stunning Achievement is indeed a great film for this age and for all ages, for all times, for the young at heart and the old of soul, always and forever, amen. All this humble critic can say is that if you’re going to spend $350 million on a low-budget art film, this is the way to do it. It may be early to start making predictions, but “The Flower That Drank the Moon” demands it. Ladies and gentlemen…the Oscar race has begun!