Humdrum fuels madness in Festival winner

December 11, 2008 

The Australian film "Streetsweeper" creates for itself a difficult challenge. It must hold our attention through a character who lives within his head and does not truly engage anyone else. Not that there are many others in the movie for Keith, the street sweeper, to interact with -- a handful of passersby who show even less interest in him than he does in them, and that's it.

Once we get the general idea that the homeless man is in his own world, reciting to himself bits of poetry, lines scrawled on notes he finds in the street, memories from a wretched childhood; once we fall into the easy rhythm of Keith pushing his broom cart through the margins and empty corners of the tidy, humdrum city, it isn't long before we're bored.

Keith's growing disconnection with the world around him -- or you could say his growing failure to process the implosion of the world taking place in his head -- lead to a somewhat predictable climax. This is an outburst of magnificently expressed rage, a torrent of bitter poetry whose principal target seems to be the comfortable suburbs that Keith goes through the motions of cleaning.

After this we're feeling not boredom but the expectation of an awful ending. We're not disappointed.

Sad and disheartening though they are, as characters in a story the seriously mentally ill are wild cards, capable of anything and therefore incapable of purposeful actions that would hold dramatic interest.

Director and co-writer Neil Mansfield and his cinematographer Toby Ralph as well as actor and co-writer Marin Mimica, who plays Keith with tough, humorless authenticity, work hard to make their film more than the diary of a mad street sweeper.

Ralph's camera loves to dwell on repetitive patterns in the sun-drenched cityscape -- stairways, cracks in concrete walls, painted lines in the crosswalks, freight trains, fences, slatted wood fences, chain link fences, bridge railings, suggestive of Keith's mental imprisonment.

And the poetry. Mimica wrote all the poems and monologues, according to the movie's Web site. "Ah, the end of day," Keith says one evening.

"The end of day

Sleep my gentle giants

Sleep my pains and misfortunes

Sleep my love and hope

Now the lunar night is falling.

Mysterious innocence awakes."

Can someone who's crazy write such stuff? Maybe.

He might also utter, as Keith does, the exquisite sacrificial sentiment that although his grandfather came home from the war with a shadow that was passed on to Keith's father and then to him, "that shadow," says Keith, "is going to end in me."

Peter Porco goes to the movies in Anchorage and blogs at adn.com/greenroom.

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