"Under stress human beings reveal who they really are. We are all survivors; that is what we have in common. What is most important is how a person manages to survive. True heroism lies in the quality of that daily struggle." (Roland Joffe, the director).
CITY OF JOY based on the novel by Dominique Lapierre may bring to mind the spiritual content that Roland Joffe primordially manifested in his earlier MISSION (1986). As much as it may symbolize a particularly similar approach to the storyline and the content, its quintessential essence lies in its location and its characters. Geographical sentiment accurately mixes with the spiritual/religious one. But, first of all, Mr Joffe's movie appears to be, what Frederic and Mary Ann Bussat call it, "an uplifting portrait of love in action ... a poignant picture of everyday heroism ... an enhancement of life" that occurs to find its relevance in joyous human development.
As it appears to be the case with every film that has attempted to address certain spiritual content, CITY OF JOY also intrigued quite diverse viewpoints. Among the top critics and reviewers, Vincent Canby of New York Times labeled the film as "phony from start to finish" adding that it actually "lacks the courage of its confused convictions" while Roger Ebert was more positive about the film's appeal to general audiences. Contemporary movie buffs also resort to certain 'limits' in that respect. Some viewers, particularly American and European ones, consider CITY OF JOY a Patrick Swayze film. Yes, to some extent it is a Patrick Swayze film but...not entirely. Let me highlight certain aspects of his performance.
Indeed, Mr Swayze's character of Max, whom Roger Ebert calls "a drifting hedonist" in his review, plays a decisive role in the film's theme as well as creates a wonderful insight into a development a man might undergo in certain circumstances. Patrick Swayze delivers a tremendously powerful performance depicting a variety of emotions that might be at war within the heart and mind of a doctor who has experienced a tragic death of his patient and wants to "disappear in the sea of humanity" (Ebert). He embodies a spiritual quest for finding himself in the hardship of this world, finding his own place, leaving the past behind and start everything anew. He goes to India and, though the beginning of this visit mixes drama with humor, he does not expect what charitable spirit he will have to cultivate within himself and in the world around him. This inner war must 'infect' others and help them see it is really hard and wonderful alike to be a human being in order to beat the odds. Patrick Swayze's scenes are supplied with terrific emotions and a very appealing portrayal of an American in India facing the uniqueness of its culture and lifestyle.
As a counterpart to his rebellious nature and desperate quest for transforming power comes Hasari played brilliantly by Om Puri. While Max represents an individual in the new reality who undergoes doubts and hesitation, Hasari is an example of a joyous giver from the beginning. What keeps him in that tranquility is his family, his wife and children. There, in the crowded, noisy streets of Calcutta, he looks for a job. By chance, he becomes a rickshaw driver and these scenes, simple, austere, funny find their relevance in the title 'joy' that may rise in a human who does not feel abandoned and not needed. His relation with Max, turbulent and wild as it may seem at moments, concludes in some of the most magnificent moments of the film. Both give much of themselves and both do not lose. Ebert makes here a parallel to such a classic as BICYCLE THIEF that finds its realization in Hasari's character and he is not that far from the accurate observation. We see a human being placed in terrible situation who does not, yet, give up.
The female character, we could say the heroine of the movie, is the Irish Joan Bethel played by Pauline Collins. Vincent Canby calls her partly humorously as "feisty, youngish, Irish – born variation of Mother Theresa." As there is no 'love story' of Max and Joan, she is given great scenes as the embodiment of charity in the brute world ruled by 'godfathers' and their puppets. As a devoted Catholic, she is also a committed giver.
All those characters create a healthy balance and help the movie resist the temptation of being a 'star vehicle' or sole focus on Patrick Swayze.
Amongst he artistic values of the movie, one has to mention the terrific music by Ennio Morricone which goes well with the joyous shouts that draw parallels to the story and the lovely, almost haunting images of people in the streets.
All in all, a very valuable movie that beats the odds of criticism from indifferent intellectuals and brings out what is really best in humanity: love. A must see not only for Patrick Swayze fans or those who enjoy the atmospheric style of Roland Joffe.