It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since America made itself feel better by kicking Iraq’s butt in the one-sided rout that was the Gulf War. Before the exploits of that glorious expedition faded into the dusty memories of the Sahara, someone needed to explore a little-known aspect of that stormy period in our history: the effects of the Gulf War at home. This is precisely what director John Gianvito is trying to accomplish in his would be epic, “The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein.” Unfortunately, Gianvito’s admirable reach far exceeds his clumsy grasp.
Told in three loosely interconnected segments, “Mad Songs” follows three diverse Americans, each a victim in his or her own way. The titular Fernanda (Thia Gonzalez), a Hispanic beauty who inherited her lightning rod of a last name from her Egyptian husband, desperately seeks to learn the fate of her two children who disappeared from school at the outset of the war.
Meanwhile Raphæl Sinclair (Dustin Scott), an impressionable young high school student influenced by an anti-war teacher, becomes increasingly involved in anti-war demonstrations and the growing peace movement. That unbridled idealism exacerbates a stormy relationship with his parents, however, and soon the passionate young war protester degenerates into a panhandling vagrant.
Finally, there’s Carlos (Robert Perrea). A tortured returning vet haunted by the things he’s seen — and done — during the war, Carlos finds himself unable to pick up the threads of his life where he’d left them. Through some combination of his own personality change or the way he’s now treated by those around him, Carlos seeks refuge in drugs, alcohol and sexual escapades with prostitutes to avoid facing up to his recent past.
Gianvito combines these three storylines with a truly chilling variety of documentary footage featuring anti-war demonstrations, CNN clips, a scathing indictment of Gulf War merchandising (remember Desert Storm trading cards?!), and footage from the troops’ return home. All of these segments take us back to those giddy days of a decade ago with a certain amount of sheepishness; the kind one might feel watching the videotape of one’s drunken exploits the night before.
These verite segments work exceedingly well. Where this film falls way flat is during its dramatic portions. In spite of its inherently powerful subject matter, “Mad Songs…” is a self-absorbed bore. Whether this is due to its exceedingly stilted dialogue, terrible, wooden acting or some cruel combination of both really doesn’t matter. The bottom line is the film’s awkward clumsiness takes away from the power of its message.
“The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein” is an ambitious, beautifully photographed film. What it desperately needs, however, is an editor to cull down its ridiculous and utterly unnecessary 168 minutes into a far more manageable length. Left as it is, this is a film that, in spite of its compelling subject matter, is far more compelling in theory than it is in fact.