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ĎAt Play in the Fields of the Lordí

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 24, 1992


Hector Babenco
Kathy Bates;
John Lithgow;
Aidan Quinn;
Tom Berenger;
Daryl Hannah;
Tom Waits
Under 17 restricted

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"At Play in the Fields of the Lord" gives you three hours of lush jungle cinematography, picturesque natives and crackpot missionaries losing their minds. It admonishes against cultural usurpation. It champions the integrity of Amazonian natives against the diabolical agendas of soul-converting missionaries and land-hungry commandantes. It finishes with fire and smoke and destroyed ideals.

Yet director Hector Babenco's latest adds up to an artistic zilch. Certainly this adaptation of Peter Matthiessen's 1965 novel has its moments. In 187 minutes, how could it not? Most of those moments have to do with fancy aerial camera work. The story itself is plodding and overblown. It could have been told in half the time. Its ideas, while ecologically and culturally correct, come across as stale and pedantic. It's an epic un-achievement.

Set in the Brazilian rain forest, the moral action occurs between outpost town Mae de Deus and a tribal village. Stranded pilot Tom Berenger has been offered a mercenary deal. If he and dusty partner Tom Waits bomb the Indians, commandante Jose Dumont will give them gasoline and return their obsolete flying papers. Holy irony, Batman: Berenger's an Indian too (half Cheyenne). Meanwhile, missionary Aidan Quinn and physically mismatched wife Kathy Bates have come to teach the very same natives the ways of the Lord. It's instantly clear that both approaches are equally lethal.

"The Lord made Indians the way they are," Berenger tells missionary Quinn. "Who are you people to make them different?"

The jungle floor is strewn with elbow-nudging ironies. There are moral lessons to be learned at every turn, from the situations to the uni-dimensional characters. John Lithgow who, with naive wife Daryl Hannah, leads the missionaries, is a Christian cum car salesman. His blustery hypocrisy would make a televangelist blush. He terms the Catholic church "The Opposition" with citric-sucking disgust. He dismisses the Indians as a "meek and stupid people." To which Quinn replies, "Then, shall they inherit the earth, as the Lord said?"

Quinn's Boy Scout goofiness is beyond belief. He stumbles blindly from one minute discovery to the next, as if he were the good oaf in "Revenge of the Nerds III." Uptight, repressed Bates is Church Lady and the nutty character she played in "Misery" rolled into one. She probably won't want to remember the climactic scene in which she loses her mind and dances naked, wearing only mud and native thongs.

It's clear how doomed everyone is -- right from the start. But this inevitability isn't so clear to the characters. Quinn and Bates, their young son in tow, establish a station on the site of a former missionary massacre. Lithgow will have his reality-proof zealotry tested; as will Hannah. As for Berenger, he doesn't bomb the Indians. He flies his plane over the beautiful terrain, until it runs out of gas.

"I'm at play in the fields of the Lord," he explains deliriously into the radio.

But it's no suicide. What Waits loses as a friend, the natives gain as a thunder spirit parachuted from heaven. The sight of him hanging against the morning sun and wondrous scenery is eerily beautiful. Unfortunately, everything thereafter is a disappointing plummet.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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