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The Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon has been living in Mexico for two years, working as a tourist guide for a cut-rate travel agency. Shannon lost his church and was defrocked after taking liberties with one of his parishioners. He's now accompanying a group of middle-aged ladies from Texas whose leader, Judith Fellowes, is keeping a close eye on her teenage ward, Charlotte Goodall, who definitely has an interest in the former priest. After Charlotte and Shannon spend the night together, Fellowes is out to have him fired and to keep her from communicating with his employer, Shannon strands them at a remote hotel run by his good friend Maxine Faulk. It's the arrival of Hannah Jelkes and her elderly grandfather that has the greatest impact however. Her approach to life and love forces Shannon to deal with his demons and re-evaluate his life. Written by
One of the masterpieces of American, and indeed world, cinema.
It is possible to watch a film on a wide range of emotional and intellectual levels. One can pay attention only to the visuals, only to the minute trivia related to actors and actresses, to the most obvious displays of physical action, to appeals to one's sympathies, or to the underlying content and profundity trying to be expressed and communicated to the viewer. Thus, films can be judged to fail on the one hand when they succeed on the other, and this, I think, explains the lukewarm response to what is the finest films ever made in the English language. Whether or not Richard Burton always plays a drunk, whether or not it should have been in colour, are not in the least bit relevant to the significance, the concepts and the issues at play in this brilliant film, this monument to the resilience of human souls, to the compassion that can bring such succour on long, tortured nights, to the precious decency that is for some a perpetual struggle to attain, and the search, the life-long search, for belief, love and light.
The backdrop to the exploration of these issues that are so fundamental to individual lives is a Mexican coastal hotel. The central character is a de-frocked and unstable priest, T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) who, like the iguana that is tethered up in preparation to being eaten, is at the end of his rope. He walks alone, without the crutch of facile beliefs or human companionship beyond sterile physical conquests which only serve to heighten his own self-loathing and isolation. He arrives at the hotel in search of sanctuary in light of his mental deterioration. On his arrival he meets his old friend, the lascivious but no less desperate Maxine (Ava Gardner), a poet on the verge of death who is nevertheless striving for one last creative act, one last stab at beautiful self-expression, and his grand-daughter Hannah (Deborah Kerr), a resilient woman painfully trying to reconcile herself to loss, loneliness and the bitter struggle she faces with her own personal demons. They are united in that they are divided, in that they are all tortured souls seeking beauty, life, meaning and engaged in battles to stand tall, to live with integrity and love. On a hot, cloying night, a night of the iguana, when all their ropes snap taut, they meet.
The pivotal and most crucial part of this film is the conversation between Lawrence and Hannah. The former is in the throes of a nervous breakdown, the latter has survived and endured through the same. They are kindred souls that aid one another through the therapy of human connection, of empathy in the long, lonely walk. It is in this conversation that Tennessee Williams explores the issues make this film so important: through his characters, who are throughout depicted not as mere shallow cliches but individuals with histories and feelings that run deep, with subtleties that bring them to life, he meditates upon the struggle to find meaning in one's life, the need for companionship, the importance of compassion, and the way in which people endure, all the time grasping at what dignity they may have, and which may be forever threatened by trials, doubts and pain. These are not issues that date, that diminish in relevance, or that relate only to certain people - they are concepts that are universal, that speak to each individual and relate to fundamental facets of the human mind and spirit.
Because Night of the Iguana sets out to tackle such issues, it is elevated far beyond the level of most films. It is profound, but also deeply emotional, made more so by the superb characterisations (aided, in addition, by universally superb performances). One is afforded an insight into characters, into people, who live, breath, cry, shout, scream, and endure. They are fallible, capable of spite, caprice, and baseness, but they are also thoughtful, courageous and strangely noble. To watch them interact, thrown together as they are on a Mexican veranda, is affecting both emotionally and intellectually, and it is this interaction which is responsible for creating a film that stands (tall and dignified) above nearly all others.
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