The Interpreter

Chaos theory is no longer just a cool idea: It’s the principle we live by, the glue that holds our one-world global village together. A murder committed in Africa reverberates across the planet. This is our brave new world where the meaning of a word changes with whoever utters it.
Sydney Pollack's new film The Interpreter explores how small and complex the world has become. Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) works at the global theater that is the United Nations as an interpreter. A woman with few friends and a shadowy past, Kidman plays Silvia as an enigma, someone who prizes her secrets, a sort of ice princess.
Silvia is propelled into the spotlight when she overhears a conversation about an assassination plot in the General Assembly Hall after hours. Secret Service Agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) is called in to investigate, dragging him out of a personal hell of his own, and the two stumble through a landmine of personal secrets, political intrigue and linguistic abracadabra while trying to uncover the plot.
The Americans must take the threat Silvia heard seriously because the dictator in question, Zuwania (Earl Cameron), leader of Matobo, is planning to speak before the United Nation’s Grand Assembly. Zuwania was a prized figure when he ushered in a revolution against the white upper class, but has since turned to genocide. Silvia lived through the regime change and saw it go bitter, losing her family to the ensuing conflict, but she turned her back on the violence in her homeland, hoping instead to affect change at the UN.
The drama on the international stage is worked out between the characters in the film. Space and time are warped so that the distant conflicts in Africa and the errant ways of an unfaithful wife are woven together. We are bound together to witness revolutions being squelched, men dying, and lovers disappearing forever. Silvia and Keller are worlds apart and although they are drawn together, they never truly breech the barriers separating them: Their not-quite-shared tragedies.
Silvia grew up in South Africa during a period of political upheaval. Seduced at a young age by revolutionary violence, she eventually found herself at the UN, working as a translator, allowing different people to understand one another. She wants to believe in diplomacy, in the power of words, but violence happens so suddenly and with such certain effects that she feels seduced by it. A million words can’t raise one dead person and an army of diplomats can’t express the suffering of one family tragedy.
At one point a South African leader dismisses the United Nations by calling it, “layers of language signifying nothing,” a line appropriated from Milton’s Paradise Lost where it referred to Pandemonium, the capital of Lucifer’s counterfeit Heaven. Pandemonium was constructed from hot air – empty rhetoric – and if this is true of the United Nations, words are ultimately meaningless against violence. 
Keller is broken and defeated, a man who has not quite beaten down the past. He reads faces and facts like Silvia interprets words, translating and weighing motives. His own narrative – which involves death and an unfaithful wife – are constantly spilling into the bigger story, the way a bad day clouds your every decision. Every problem he sees looks a lot like his own life.
He can be inaccurate and sloppy, and his interpretations are often clouded and mixed-up, but beneath this wreck of a man is a first-class intellect. His professionalism shields him from his own grief, but when he’s not picking through the plot he’s picking apart himself.
Kidman threatens to upstage Penn at every juncture, but Penn’s character is in many ways more difficult and nuanced. You can see the fault lines spread across his face when he blurts out personal details at inappropriate times, trying desperately to link Silvia’s tragedy with his own. If you misread these scenes, you might think the film is dumbed-down, but I prefer to believe that Keller is unstable and Penn has dug into the character at the profoundest level, where things begin to come undone. 
The characters are opaque and difficult to read despite the fact that they desperately want to empty themselves in their words. The fact is that no matter how many times Penn recounts the pain and suffering, he never quite brings his suffering to the surface. This interesting disconnect between the character’s deepest concerns and the dialog, which at times appears heavy handed, is either a wonderful way to gesture back to the film’s meaning or just an awkward quirk.
The amazing thing is that by the end of the film we still can’t fathom these characters, even though they’ve released every secret word they know. In the end, nothing translates and everything is a mere interpretation.


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